Do You Know the Five Brain States?

The human brain with its interrelated structures is indeed a phenomenon. The constant chemical and electrical activities occurring within it are far too vast and complex to explain in one post. But many complex processes—going on all at once—are impacted by environment. This is particularly true for children where the brain is forming, wiring and developing.

Dr. Bruce Perry’s paradigm for understanding brain states

Dr. Bruce Perry
Dr. Bruce Perry. He is a Founder of the Child Trauma Academy and has had an incredible impact in the field of trauma in children.

One of the experts we know and have greatly come to respect is Dr. Bruce Perry.   He is a Founder of the Child Trauma Academy and has had an incredible impact in the field of trauma in children. Renown in this field, he has been a researcher, trainer and author.

Dr. Perry has provided a paradigm for organizing and understanding information to better synthesize and apply some of the principles of this electrical process in which brain areas are more or less in charge, based on what the brain is experiencing and perceiving in its environment.

In any given moment a person is in one of five brain states:

  • Calm
  • Aroused
  • Alarmed
  • Fearful
  • Terrorized

Briefly explaining the five brain states

A child is in one of the above brain states because of his/her perceptions of how the environment or a particular situation appears to be. The brain, using memories and past experiences then “decides” which part needs to dominate in order to maintain safety.

It is important to note that a child may, in fact, be in a safe environment, and yet the brain has responded as if it is a dangerous environment. The brain’s response is because of past experiences and memories combined with triggers that the child may or may not consciously know have influenced the brain’s decision about which brain state needs to be activated.


A child's brain state determines his cognitive abilities.

The brain state determines cognitive abilities:

  • When calm, a person can think abstractly.
  • When aroused, a person can think concretely.
  • When alarmed, a person tends to respond emotionally.
  • When fearful, a person is more reactive.
  • When terrorized, a person is more reflexive.

With this information, we can understand how children and adults are impacted by what brain state they are in.

Imagine a child (or adult) in a constant state of fear. He/she is reactive most of the time. The individual cannot think or make decisions on complicated issues. In fact, he/she can only react to triggers. Sometimes we see more about the brain state of a child than his/her intentional behavior. The child may simply be trying to self-protect from perceived fear, though the fear may be invisible to anyone else in the room.

Some significant responses and capabilities have been discovered in current research on the brain that are very important to know. In my next post on the Lakeside Connect blog,  I will discuss more important realities on trauma in the lives of children and adults.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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