Avery Holba

Avery Holba is a Biology Major and student in the Honors College of the University of Missouri in Columbia. As a student in the Liminality and the Sciences seminar of the Honors College, she presented this paper on Liminality and the Changing Brain.

When people enter a liminal period of their life they are often faced with extreme stress and hardship. They have entered a period in their life where they are unable to predict what’s happening next. While the individual’s emotions may be in chaos the same is true for their brain. The human brain automatically is always working to find patterns and structure in our everyday life and when something unexpected occurs there is an increased number of eclectic signals that must be sent through the neurons and synapses within the brain to make sense of this new input and create a new understanding.

Biologically, this response to liminality is best observed using ERP or event related brain potential. ERP uses electrodes placed on different parts of the head to link electronic brain responses related to different events as they are being processed. One of the most useful data collected by ERPs is N400. N400 measures the amount of eclectic energy fried from synapses. N400 are most often used because they can be used broadly as the brain interprets different types of stimuli. For example, N400 picks up on synapses responding to individual words in sentences, numbers, faces, and multiple other types of common stimuli. Many researchers also utilize N400 because it showcases the flexibility of the brain to adapt to new and unexpected input, or in other words restructure. N400’s are presented as a series of waves with alternating positive and negative amplitudes. These amplitudes represent the interconnectedness of top down and bottom down processing, which allows individuals to adapt to new environments and stimuli. Bottom down processing is when the brain takes in sensory information and begins to integrate it, then top down occurs as the brain uses past ideas, models, and experiences to process this new information and make sense of it.

One example of ERPs and N400 is in language studies. Language processing is an intriguing field of study because it is a part of our everyday life that most do not give much thought to. However, processing language is a highly complex neurobiological process that combines the knowledge of syntax, word memorization with our understanding of our reality. As an individual reads a sentence their mind is constantly guessing what word will be next. This hypothesis is based on their previous experiences and expectations. This function is not limited to language processing, in fact, the brain is always making calculated guesses as to what is going to happen next.

In one study by Kutas and Hillard, “Reading Senseless Sentences: Brain potentials reflect semantic incongruity,” ERPs are utilized to investigate electronic signals to synapses when participants are faced with out of place words. In this experiment, participants silently read 160 words distributed in 7 different sentences. These seven sentences fell into three different categories, moderate incongruence, strong incongruence, and congruent. The two types of incongruent sentences made up 25% over the sentences shown to the participants in this study. These sentences were shown word by word on a flashing slideshow to prevent sight reading from impacting the results of the N400. This study found that both sets of incongruent sentences caused a large dip in the N400 wave associated with down up processing. In other words, the electric brain signals temporarily “freaked out” as they were forced to make sense of a sentence that is unpredictable. While it took longer, the brain was able to successfully assimilate this new information, and as the participants encountered more incongruent sentences as the study continued the dip in N400, while still present, was less dramatic. This data proves that the human brain is highly adaptable to new situations and input.

The data collected from Kutas and Hillard’s and study, and others like it, showcase the physical impact of liminal experiences. In the previously mentioned study, the biological liminal space only lasted a few moments, and represented a small percent of the assimilation needed to process new environments and create a restructured post liminal zone. However, the process of biologically restructuring in a liminal space is different for everyone. The brain behaves like a muscle. Individuals can strengthen different connections based on our experiences.  This first occurs in childhood, where synapses not used as often in children are “cut” so that more energy can be delegated to strengthen more useful connections. This is one of the reasons that restructuring is such a difficult task. The connections that are needed to make sense of this new reality may differ from what was needed in the past.

This struggle is what caused the rise of events such as rituals. Rituals represent a type of scaffolding for those in liminal zones. Vygotsky, a famous psychologist used the process of scaffolding to describe the process that children go through to incorporate new information in their worldview. As adults this process is still utilized, however children are a better model for this process as they are constantly restructuring their world view, or in other words, constantly in a liminal zone. Vygotsky uses the example of a teacher, but for liminal experiences they would be liminal guides. These guides provide scaffolding, or outside structure, to allow individuals to create a new world view when faced with a new set of circumstances. The combination of a healthy brain and outside resources are essential for the restructuring to occur after liminal chaos.

One example of the failure to restructure would be PTSD, as previously mentioned in class. When individuals are in a situation where they constantly need to be on alert the neural connections that send out stress signals are strengthened. This is because stress is the emotion responsible for keeping people safe by making sure the brain is alert and ready to react.

However, in causes where the individual develops PTSD, the brain struggles to strengthen neural connections needed to succeed in a safe environment.  Therefore, stress and panic signals continue to be sent out even though the danger has passed. A therapist or liminal guide is often utilized to scaffold the individual and help strengthen the appropriate thought patterns and neural connections.  New research shows that liminal guides help their patients strengthen the necessary neural connections through mirror neurons which is a process where synapses are strengthened through the process of observing and anticipating other behavior. Therefore, if a therapist can model appropriate reactions to trauma and stress, individuals suffering from PTSD may be able to strengthen the synapses in their brain to copy these emotions.

While traumatic events make it more difficult for the brain to process new input and create a new structure after a liminal experience, the opposite is true of positive experiences. As previously mentioned, language is a commonly studied experience because it is shared among humans and represents a long-term experience. Language also activates most of the brain. Therefore, a multitude of studies have found that being bilingual increases neural plasticity in the brain. In other words, due to the immense mental difficulty of juggling two languages, a process that is constant for bilinguals, the brain becomes more equipped to adapt to new input and environments. In a study by Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, and Ungerleider in 2010 where children were observed solving a variety of different conflicts it was discovered that bilinguals were better at adapting and finding solutions to conflicts. It is worth noting that the conflicts presented to the children were not language based, Therefore, the strengthening of synaptic pathways result in higher executive functions in bilinguals, these skills can be translated to help better problem solve and assimilate new information. It is reasonable to conclude that bilingual individuals are more equipped to restore when faced with a liminal experience. The bilingual brain is composed of more gray matter than the average monolinguals which is linked to learning abilities. In other words, new experiences in bilinguals are less of a shock to the neurobiological system as it has been trained to prepare for conflicts through the intensity of juggling two languages. Similar results can be seen in individuals who stimulate their brain frequently and therefore increase gray matter.

Overall, the events an individual experiences throughout their life impacts how they handle liminal periods in their life going forward. Biologically, traumatic events, like those causing PTSD, creates patterns in the brain that become difficult to escape. However, though liminal guides and other sources of outside help it is possible to strengthen other neural connections and to recover. However, those who often stimulate and challenge their brain like bilinguals, are more likely to easily create new synaptic connections because their brain has adapted to processing challenging input. To a certain extent individuals can control and change their own brain through patterns and activities and decreasing the stress of liminal spaces is just one major advantage of this system.