It’s official! I am thrilled to share the news that our book, Fighting Time, is going to become a feature length documentary. It’s exciting to think about our story of friendship, healing, and hope reaching a broader audience through film.

The documentary is in development with Pixela Pictura Films. Pixela Pictura is an Emmy-nominated and award winning creative studio, creating meaningful connections through storytelling. They encourage audience to seek understanding and find unexpected similarities in our increasingly divided world.

I can’t think of a better storytelling team to join Isaac and I in our continuing journey to educate people about the impact that wrongful convictions can have on both the wrongfully convicted and a victim’s family.

Pixela Pictura’s work has been seen on ESPN, ABC, PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and more. We know that this team of personal and intentional storytellers will bring our story to life in an engaging and powerful way. 

Stay tuned for updates.

Neuroscience helps explain the importance of student-teacher relationships.

One year ago this week, a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the lockdown of the NBA, the first corporate organization in the United States to do so. At the time, it felt both outrageous and terrifying, a stunning admission that the coronavirus was about to change our lives forever. Within days and weeks, the virus was already spreading across the country. During the week of March 16, 2020, at least 46 states ordered school closures to stop the spread of the pandemic.

One year later, our lives are filled with pandemic-related knowledge and coping strategies. Social distancing vs. physical distancing with social contact? The 20-second rule for adequate hand washing, bulk purchases of toilet paper, hand sanitizers, and Clorox wipes have become part of everyday conversations. Some schools closed for two weeks and then opened only to close again, opting for remote learning or hybrid teachings models. Even as the world of neuroscience was attempting to come to a unified understanding of the impact of excessive screen time on our children’s neurological development, school-aged kids were attending school over computers—for many, 100% of the time. Through online learning seemed better than no school at all, some feared the new learning platforms would cause irreparable damage to our children’s young minds, impacting intellectual and social-emotional development, if this practice continued. Getting children back to school—learning in an interactive classroom is felt to be critical.

As vaccines began rolling out in the beginning of 2021, fewer than a third of states had prioritized teachers as a first-line priority group. Stunning! How is it that we can value our children’s health and well-being and not see how intricately their well-being is tied to the well-being of the 3.7 million teachers that often spend more time with our children than the children’s own parents? On some level, this is not surprising. The crucial role educators play in building an optimally functioning society gets disappeared in a separate-self culture, intent on celebrating the self-made man—as if a child’s greatness is waiting to emerge all on its own. If we, as a country, appreciate the essential role the educator-student relationship plays in maintaining a healthy society we would not only celebrate and protect these educators, but also reward them in the one way we show value in a capitalistic society—with bigger paychecks.

Why should teachers have been in the first group being offered vaccinations along with health care personnel and the elderly? Relational neuroscience has some ideas. First off, children’s brains and bodies grow, develop and learn most effectively within relationship. The growth process starts as an interpersonal experience with mother (or other care-taking adults). As the mother and child bond, the mother’s brain literally shifts to be more resonant with the child. Their brain waves literally synchronize. The infant learns about the world embedded in and informed by this pairing. The child’s four pathways for connection (as described in Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brains Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships, Banks and Hirschman) become robust when they are perpetually stimulated within safe connection.

When a child’s environment expands by going to day care or starting school, the neuroplastic weight of the parent is diluted by the hours spent with teachers and other students. Educators become an increasingly large part of the neuroplastic change agents impacting that child. The quality of those relationships directly impacts the capacity for that child to learn. As Cozolino describes in his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education (2013), “positive social interactions result in increased metabolic activity, MRNA synthesis and neural growth. Relationships can create an internal environment of neural plasticity.” At its most basic, learning is an active process of brain change and it is enhanced by the quality of the relationships in the educational environment. Children literally become smarter in healthy connections.

Additionally, safe, responsive, connected environments enhance a child’s resilience, perhaps one of the more important characteristics for any child facing the challenges of the world they are living in today. Dr. Amit Sood describes resilience as “the core strength you have to lift the load of life.” While this definition captures the weight of life, it also comes close to condemning children to a life spent carrying the weight of the world on their individual shoulders, like an overburdened Atlas. In Relational-Cultural Theory, resilience is redefined as a relational capacity. People with an abundance of relational resilience gain the capacity to move from connection to disconnection and back into connection. Strong relational resilience allows people to be in productive conflict (“good trouble” as John Lewis might suggest); it allows people from different cultures to listen and learn from one another; and is desperately needed to heal our divided country.

The capacity for relational resilience is highly dependent on the functioning of the four neural pathways for connection. A strong smart vagus nerve (built within calm relationships) is needed to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system so that when conflict or fear arises you do not have to fight or flee, but can stay engaged and work through a disconnection. A less reactive anterior cingulate gyrus (built within accepting relationships and communities) allows modulation of the pain felt during a disconnection so that working through the conflict is possible. A robust mirror neuron system (formed within responsive relationships) allows an accurate reading and resonance with the other person during a disconnection, enhancing a sense of understanding and being understood—both necessary for a mutual repair of a relational breech. And finally, a dopamine reward system strongly connected to relationship (built within playful, fun, joyful relationships) allows memory of past successful relational repairs and the positive energy and zest that accompanies these successes fuel the hard work of building mutually respectful relationships. Building positive relational moments of successfully navigating from disconnection back into connection strengthens these four pathways needed for healthy relationships and in turn leads to greater relational resilience.

In the classroom, relational resilience is built within peer relationships and teacher-student relationships, however, the teacher’s relational capacity and stress level are key in building a healthy learning environment. While any educator can have a hard day and become dysregulated, a chronically dysregulated teacher will end up with a stressed-out classroom—the unpredictability and lack of safe connections activate the children’s sympathetic nervous systems leading to more stress and less capacity to learn.

This is why educators need to be amongst the first group to be vaccinated. In 2020 there were about 3.7 million teachers in the U.S. and as of today over 525,000 people have died from COVID-19. That means that roughly 1 in 7 teachers will have had a loved one die from a COVID-19 related illness over the past year. In addition to the losses, countless teachers have their own risk factors for a bad COVID-19 outcome should they become infected and others are living with someone who is at increased risk. And yet school districts all over the country have asked teachers to return to the classroom without adequate protection or to some hybrid model without appreciating what is happening to the teacher’s nervous system. I know more than one person who was told that they would lose their jobs or be forced to take early retirement if they did not return to school.

Teachers returning to the classroom without vaccinations are returning with unacceptable levels of stress, not just from the increased multitasking needed to follow new COVID-19 protocols and to learn new technology for hybrid classrooms, but also from exposure to a potentially life-threatening illness. Children are in line to be the last ones vaccinated and while this may make sense in terms of the degree of illness most kids manifest, children are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers and can and will carry this virus into the classroom. Any unvaccinated teacher who has not had COVID-19 is at risk every day they are in school. Is it reasonable to expect our teachers to both put themselves in life-threatening danger AND be able to build a connected classroom where children are most able to thrive, grow and learn? That is asking too much. Studies have shown that acute stress of as little as two hours literally impairs the brain’s ability to learn and chronic stress, the kind our unvaccinated teacher’s carry in the classroom, will not only shape our children’s learning environments but ultimately impair the physical and mental health of our educators. And the impact is amplified in predominately black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

If education was seen as a right that everyone had equal access to in our country, if the quality of education were equal across communities rather than dependent on the wealth of the individual community, teachers’ needs and their nervous systems would have a better shot at not being disappeared. They would be seen more clearly as amongst the most essential workers in our society and given the protection, they need to feel safe and present in their jobs. All of our futures are dependent on them.


References

  • Schwartz, Harriet. Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power and mattering in Higher Education. (2020) Stylus Publishing
  • Cozolino, Louis. The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom. (2013) Norton Press
  • Banks, Amy with Leigh Ann Hirschman. Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships. (2016). Tarcher Penguin.

Racism lives in our minds and bodies—to end it, we must first find and feel it.

Like so many in our country, I am sick—not from the coronavirus, but by the ways systemic racism continues to shackle and kill people of color in our country and by the ways in which too many white Americans continue to deny it, look the other way and/or fail to see how there lives benefit from it.

In the U.S., systemic racism is one of the primary default programs all citizens use to filter day-to-day experiences. The random fact of being born white comes with unearned power and an unseen advantage over people of color. I have learned from antiracist friends and colleagues that racism is so deeply embedded in our societal structures and subconscious minds that if you live your life without examining your biases and the biases of people who were instrumental in shaping your beliefs, you will inevitably replay the learned racism consciously or unconsciously.

For many white people, it is too easy to believe that you care deeply about social justice but are too busy with work, taking care of kids, or paying the bills to join an all-out war on racism. It’s been too easy to only think about Black lives mattering immediately following the killing of another Black person by the police. The mass of diverse protesters across our country are screaming in one voice that inaction is no longer tolerable. It is time for white people to take responsibility for changing the culture of racism by changing themselves and the unequal social structures they have created. Silence is not an option.

In more intimate groups of well-meaning white people, I have heard many share how they feel stuck, frozen by guilt or fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. They want to jump in but don’t know how or where to start. Taking responsibility must begin with an increased awareness of one’s own biases—how they were created and how they benefit all white people. Only then can any of us honestly own the role we are playing in perpetuating the status quo.

Racism lives in our bodies and therefore we cannot simply think our way of it. We can not escape into our heads and create a new community ideal without first feeling the impact of racism. We must feel the pain that people of color have endured and to use that pain to fuel action for change.

Examining my own whiteness and unearned privilege takes me back to my roots in Maine, which remains the whitest state in the nation (2020). Here I can begin to understand how seamlessly my own racist education started and how deeply it lives in my cells. This is not an exercise in self-flagellation, but rather an attempt to see where it stills lives in me. I understand that it is impossible not to be racist when you grow up in an environment with toxic levels of bias, judgment and misinformation about people of color. I can not become an anti-racist without owning and identifying where racism lives within me and in my communities.

To say that race relations were not on my radar growing up would be an understatement. In fact, in high school I was just coming out to myself as a lesbian and I was preoccupied with the injustices in the LGBTQ community in the later ’70s. In Maine, there was plenty of homophobia to worry about. However, for my family, that changed in the spring of 1979 when my father traveled on business to New Orleans. On his first day in NOLA, after eating dinner in the French Quarter, he and a colleague walked back to the Hyatt Regency. At the entry to the hotel, they were held up by two young men, and my father was shot and killed.

Within hours, my family was told that “two Black men” had tried to rob my father and his colleague. This was my first substantive exposure to someone from the Black community. My family had been shattered by the murder and naïvely believed that the legal system in New Orleans would help us seek justice for the death of my father. We had no idea that what we were told was filtered through the New Orleans legal system well known for its racist attitudes. When the photos of the suspects, Isaac Knapper and Leroy Williams, popped up in our local newspaper, I remember looking at them closely and wondering what in their lives would have caused them to rob and kill. It never occurred to me that the prosecution would withhold exculpatory evidence at the trial and that one of the young men, Isaac Knapper, would be wrongly convicted for murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life. My family did not question the arrest and verdict for many reasons, but the biggest was that my family was solidly part of the white, dominant culture. One does not have to be an avowed white supremacist to be racist—you simply have to be brainwashed 24/7 by a culture that defines health and acceptability as the birthright of all white people and associates people of color with violence.

When I found out in 2005 that the alleged killer of my father, Isaac Knapper, had been exonerated in the early 1990s, I was shocked and sickened. By then I had become a psychiatrist with a deep interest in issues of social justice and was well aware of the gross inequities that existed in America between people of color and white people—in health care, life expectancy, educational opportunity, housing, wealth … the list goes on and on. However, until I learned of Isaac’s exoneration I had no way of knowing how entwined my own story was in America’s racism. The traumatic memory of my father’s murder was now exponentially more painful as it now involved the wrongful conviction of a 16-year-old boy. The anguish was now compounded by images of Isaac as a young man in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola where he was sent to live out the rest of his life with no chance of parole.

By 2015, I was both curious and furious. Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Michael Brown—the killings of Black men by police just kept happening. I decided to take personal action to more fully understand the horrendous racist event that my family had unwittingly been involved in. With much fear, I reached out to Isaac Knapper (who had been released after 13 years and was living in NOLA) and asked to meet. In December of that year my sister, Nancy, and I met with Isaac and his wife in New Orleans. The meeting and our friendship have transformed my life. What surprised me the most was how easy it was to be together—how we didn’t stop talking and sharing the entire weekend we spent together. What disturbed me to my core was hearing Isaac’s personal experience of police brutality. How much worse his experience had been then I could even imagine. He shared his violent arrest at 5:45 a.m. when he was awoken with guns pointing at his head, the brutal interrogation where police beat him to within an inch of his life in an attempt to force a confession (it failed), and the utter disregard for his humanity at every turn of the legal proceedings. Yet, despite all he had been through (and continues to go through as a Black man in this society), he also listened to our story and our pain with deep compassion and caring.

One lesson I have learned from Isaac and his family is that the process of healing racism will hurt and at times, the risks you will need to take will be terrifying. But the pain is not penance for bad behavior (though there is room for that as well). When you hurt so badly you feel you will die—pay close attention. Feeling unspeakable pain may mean you have finally begun to feel clear empathy and resonance with the relentless agonies and indignities faced by people of color. You must walk directly into that pain to fully understand the price Black and brown people have paid for your/our white privilege. If you can’t stand it, don’t stop feeling, find someone who can help you hold it. Do you dare to risk everything to be part of the movement to repair the racial divide that has plagued our country since white people enslaved Black people over 400 years ago literally using their Black bodies to build America?

Isaac and I have established a deep friendship—one that feels more like family. It is a chosen family that I cherish. Within it I have had the opportunity to heal and to grow and to witness my own biases in a way that humbles me. We have chosen to write our story in an upcoming book, Fighting Time. In sharing our story we hope to inspire people to move into the fear and the pain of systemic racism and to have the conversations that are desperately needed to see and feel one another and to help our society grow beyond our tragically racist roots.

Fighting Time, by Isaac Knapper and Amy Banks, M.D., will be published by Regal House Publishing/Pact Press in 2021.


References

  • Walker, Maureen. When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Lives in Our Lives and Relationships. 2019, Teacher’s College Press, New York, NY
  • Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. 2016, Nation’s Books, New York, NY

 

The importance of social connection in the pandemic. To protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from the devastation of the coronavirus, health experts strongly encourage everyone to “socially distance” — to stay 6-10 feet away from other people.

I am concerned — not by the strategy but by the way people are enacting it. The few times I have ventured out to a grocery store or for a walk around my neighborhood, I’ve seen people not only keeping distant from one another but also seeming afraid. They pass each other on the street or in a store without looking at each other or exchanging greetings.

It’s as if we were each locked in a personal bubble that no one can enter. The threat of COVID-19 and the stress it induces can understandably cause individuals to become terrified and myopic — to turn inward in an attempt to stay safe.

While a week of that may be more stressful to some than others, months of this type of social isolation is dangerous. Research clearly shows us that our physical and emotional health and well-being are dependent on loving relationships and physical touch. To weather this pandemic, we need one another.

Weeks ago, my colleague and friend, Roseann Adams, LCSW, recognized that the national strategy of social distancing was a double-edged sword. She identified that social distancing can be a threat to all of us as it leads some people to socially isolate potentially causing further stress and, over the long haul, impairing our bodies’ immune system. In fact, strict social distancing may set us up for other illnesses.

Within the first few days, she was encouraging people to physically distance with social connection. Differentiating physical distance from social distance acknowledges the virus’s malignant ability to be transmitted from person to person but also acknowledges that the virus has no power over our ability to support and nurture one another in this time of extraordinary threat.

Think about the power of social isolation in society. Solitary confinement is considered the worst punishment a human can receive. In fact, most civilized communities consider it a form of torture. The physical and emotional toll it takes over time includes a worsening of mental health issues, an increase in self-injurious behavior and even suicide.

Isolating individuals is perhaps the most common first step domestic abusers use to gain power and control over their victims. He or she begins to control who you can see, where you can go, what you can wear. When a person violates the rules set by the perpetrator the punishment is harsh and swift.

Social distancing, as it has been presented, can feel like that.  In fact, in my work with trauma survivors during this time, I have heard people describe feeling trapped and threatened again. That is not sustainable. Becoming socially isolated may keep the majority of us alive, but not well.

By naming the national strategy as physical distancing rather than social distancing and emphasizing the need for human connection, we can stay safe from the virus but also hold onto the heightened need we all have for one another right now. Each of us needs an extra dose of being seen and held within our connections during this extraordinary time. Perhaps now, more than ever, we must be intentional about giving our neural pathways for connection a workout.

In fact, we need to go out of our way to make eye contact, wave, move, or loudly say “hello” from behind the mask. This gives our smart vagus nerve and our mirror neurons a workout. Literally, the sound of a friendly voice and seeing the eyebrows of another person raise in greeting stimulates your social engagement system, which in turn sends a signal to your stress response system to stand down. Those moments of interaction may make the difference in the long run as to how we, as a society, survive the pandemic.

The human nervous system is amazingly adaptive. Our brains will adapt to social isolation over time, but the burden of stress the isolation causes will lead to long-term health problems. As a society we will not be well at the end of all of this — not because of COVID-19 but because of the message we take in that being with others can be dangerous.

That is why each of us must do our part to not only stay physically six feet apart and to wear masks but also to go out of our way on the street, in the grocery store, through FaceTime, Zoom, or whatever platform you can use to reach out to one another. We all must know that nurturing the relationships we have and reaching out to others who may be isolated is as essential to surviving the pandemic as physical distancing.

Let’s add another important directive to our national policy of containing the coronavirus — to reach out each day to three other people — to check in on them, simply hear their voice, or share the pain or joy of the day. This is a wider strategy to not only survive the pandemic but to keep our humanity alive.