Small Differences that Make a Difference

Priscilla Friesen and Val Brown

Small Differences that Make a Difference

Murray Bowen had a way to made people think differently about the social nature of systems, and the challenges any social systems presents to self.  There are people who knew Dr Bowen well and who had a great deal of contact with him, and many more who had a brief encounter.   Those drawn to Bowen and his theory are often people who are fascinated by systems and believe that problems can be understood by looking at the big picture, and thereby understanding how the smaller parts are functioning.

Val Brown, Ph.D., is one such person.  As the developer of NeurOptimal a form of neurofeedback, he has been involved with a significant number of people in the Bowen network. There is a DVD, Resiliency in the Family & the Brain, available of the last conference that Priscilla Friesen organized with Val Brown.

Many of us have used NeurOptimal to reduce anxiety in the effort to improve functioning in the important relationships.  Bottom line it takes a lot of brain stamina to keep going when you are trying to define a more separate-self in a real life emotional system.  You will hear some of this in the interview below.

I first meet Val back in 1980 when he joined grand rounds in the department of psychiatry at Georgetown University.  I was there to videotape Dr. Bowen with a clinical family.  After Bowen’s interview of the family, the residents and students had time to ask him questions.  Val asked Bowen about his constant use of the words, “I hear you,” to the family members.  He was wondering,  “Why not change your sensory modality, to I see or feel what you are saying?”  Bowen referred to Val as a wiz kid back then.
I wondered what Val had learned about Bowen then and what he thought about Bowen’s very different take on families. There was not much time at the conference but we found an hour over lunch to chat. You can click below on the audio and hear some of his thoughts about Bowen and Val’s own pursuit of understanding of how to learn from the brain itself.  Val’s long-term thesis is that training can strengthen the brain by allowing it to see it’s own function and thereby become more resilient.
I was invited to participate in a meeting on “Research and Innovation in NeurOptimal in February 2012.”   There were over seventy people in Palm Springs, California, who had traveled from many countries, including France, the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada. Much of the meeting was devoted to presentations explaining how these clinicians and researchers are using the equipment.

The technology of neurofeedback has been used since the nineteen seventies for peak performance, mental fitness, symptom reduction and increased ability to focus. Participants at the meeting reported on how the training has been associated with a decrease in symptoms and an increase in mindfulness.  One can track improvement in functioning along with a decrease in symptoms such as insomnia, cancer, cognitive deficits, ADHD, autism, developmental delays, trauma attachment and Alzheimer’s.   My presentation, entitled The Observation of Change in One Family, was about the effort to come into better contact with my brother, who had been hospitalized for emotional problems. Many in my family had become cut off from one another. As we reengaged ostensibly to help my brother, the intensity among us increased.   So we all used NeurOptimal to decrease the intensity/anxiety around solving difficult problems of living in the now and the multigenerational relationships tangles inherited from the past that lived not only in my brother with the most severe symptoms, but in all of us.

Val recalled his first memory of seeing Bowen at a clinical conference.  At the time Val was working at Sibley hospital. He heard that Bowen had a new way of understanding the family as a unit.  One of the things that stuck in Val’s mind was that so many of the women in the audience were knitting as they listened to Bowen. I reminded him that the woman of the French revolution also knitted.  But I guessed that the Bowen audience was not very animated and may have left the impression they would not be changing the world.
Val had an attraction to Bowen on several levels. Bowen was similar in appearance to and had a Tennessee accent similar to Val’s grandfather.  I wondered to myself if early family relationships give you clues about who to trust and who to avoid?  The look of Bowen may have made a connection with his grandfather possible and this may have made Bowen’s ideas about the importance of the extended family more relevant to Val.

I will speculate that just as the brain cannot see it’s own functioning, but can be made aware of it, neither are we aware of the automatic way we process information about relationships.  Our conscious mind is very limited and cannot process a great deal of information. A long ago and far away evolutionary process decided what was important to focus on. How we mange anxiety in our relationship systems is very automatic.  How relationships impact our physiology and psychology may not be as important as figuring out whom should we fear and whom we trust.


Our cause and effect brain is “other focused” and therefore we fail to see the system influencing us to remain in our sometimes dis-functional roles. What can enable us to refocus on self and to see that which is right in front of us, but not of interest to our automatic brain?


I see Val’s NeurOptimal training and Bowen’s Family Systems Theory moving in a similar direction.  NeuroOptimal training enables the brain to build resiliency.   Val’s interest in training brain resilience and Bowen’s emphasis on the importance of being more resilient as a function of being more self defined and separate emotionally, is where the two men’s life work intersects.  It appears that brain resilience and working on being more of a self are complimentary efforts, which can reinforce each other.
When I asked Val what he might ask Bowen if he were still alive, he said he would ask him more about his ideas about triangles and interlocking relationships.  In speaking of teachers like Bowen who have made a remarkable difference, Val noted that there are few teachers who really make an impact on your life. Two of his teachers during high school challenged him to read and understand deeply, more for his own self than to please the teacher.  This is an interesting part of the tape with too many details to go into in this brief summary of the interview.

Having a great teacher early on can make the lack of thoughtful challenging teachers in college a great frustration.   Teachers can be great mentors especially if they are willing and able to push students to think beyond a set of answers. What I got from listening to Val was that when education becomes like a factory, pushing out people with the same kind of thinking or in order to get the right “ticket”, then the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is lost.

One of Val’s mentors asked him, “What is the worst scenario that can happen as you risk moving ahead?” It reminded me of the various things that Bowen used to say, which my memory twists into: “We are all born into difficulties and when you think you know the way for you, even if its uphill, pay as little attention as possible to the sticks and stones others throw, just keep going.”

I hope that you have time to listen to the interview and enjoy the many side roads we took in thinking about the importance of being a self, the impact of theories, various teachers and the nature of the controlling and confounding elements within social systems.

val brown part one 2 22 12


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