Your 2 Brains And The Link To ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, And Autoimmunity with Dr. Mel Hopper Koppelman

Content By: Ari Whitten & Dr. Mel Hopper Koppelman

In this episode, I’m back with Dr. Mel Hopper Koppelman, discussing what she believes is one of the most important and overlooked areas in health—how brain development in childhood might be at the root of the health problems you’re experiencing as an adult.

You’ll likely have some ‘aha!’ moments (maybe big ones) while listening to the podcast.

If you haven’t listened to our first episode, check it out here. 

Table of Contents

In this podcast, Dr. Mel and I discuss:

  • The fascinating fact that we actually have 2 brains…and how brain imbalances impact your immune system and overall health
  • How evolution led to our specialized, complex brain design and the main purposes it serves
  • Myths debunked: The misunderstood idea that the left brain controls math and logic and the right brain controls creativity, and whether it’s true that we only use 10% of our brain 
  • The overlooked brain imbalance called “functional disconnection” and why this might be at the root of health problems such as autism, ADHD, gut dysfunction, autoimmunity, dyslexia, depression, anxiety, or even chronic infections 
  • The surprisingly easy-to-test primitive reflexes (that start in the womb!) and how they’re connected to chronic disease 
  • Could you have an immature brain stem? Dr. Mel tells us the symptoms that let you know AND how to address this issue
  • Why some popular health solutions might actually make you worse based on the specific brain imbalance you’re experiencing 
  • How brain imbalance can lead to changes in blood tests, such as low white blood cell count
  • Practical ways you can assess if you have an imbalanced brain, accounting for your particular skills, health history, and childhood experiences
  • The important distinction between pathologizing neurodiversity vs. helping those who wish to improve their brain’s functionality in certain areas
  • The liberating knowledge that our brains are malleable and trainable, and we can heal even longstanding brain-related issues!  

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Ari Whitten: Hey, this is Ari. Welcome back to the Energy Blueprint podcast. With me today for round two is Dr. Mel Hopper Koppelman. If you haven’t already, before you listen to this episode, I’d strongly recommend you go back and listen to part one with her to get a bigger picture sense of her background and her paradigm of health. In this episode, we talk all about brain development during childhood and how that is a big and very overlooked determinant of adult health problems, health problems in adulthood. I think it’s a really fascinating topic that is rarely talked about. I’ve certainly very seldom ever heard anyone discuss this.

She’s got a lot of thoughts, a lot of ideas and science built out around this. I think there’s a lot of insights to be had here. Really, to some extent, I think she’ll make the case for all health problems, but certainly things that are overtly brain-related health problems or just certain traits, certain symptoms that you may have experienced during your life, things like you may struggle with ADHD, for example, or many other types of brain-related issues.

I think you’ll get a lot of value from hearing this perspective. You might just have some aha moments that give you a new layer of insight into the origin of some of those symptoms or things that you’ve been dealing with. With no further ado, enjoy this podcast part two with Dr. Mel Hopper Koppelman. Mel, welcome back for part two.

Mel: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

How childhood development may affect adult health

Ari: We have a lot to talk about. I have a feeling we’re probably going to end up doing a part three because I’ve watched some of your lectures and I feel like we could probably have a good 10 hours of discussion, if not more. We’ll start with the second hour and see where it goes from there. As a suggested topic for exploring here, you linked me to some of your presentations that you’ve given in recent months and years.

I think brain development in childhood as a determinant of adult health would be a really fascinating place to start. I know this is a topic that you’ve been exploring in great depth recently and teaching on. Can you give our audience a broad overview of what childhood brain development has to do with our health in adulthood?

Mel: Absolutely. I think this is probably one of the most overlooked areas. I don’t want to paint myself as the ultimate expert on this subject by any stretch, but I have been studying it for a few years and definitely there are certain things that I want to share with people that I think are important to know and are learnable and understandable. Ultimately, it’s your body and your brain, so it’s helpful to know a little bit more about how it works. Essentially, the way we develop is not so different than a very specialized tree or plant. That’s a simple way to think about it. We and our nervous system develop from the bottom up.

We think about spinal cord and our brainstem, and then it develops up from there. When human babies are born, our brains are quite immature compared to other animals for a variety of reasons, trying to keep it fairly simple. As we explore the world, and interact in the world, and hear things, and move our bodies, that provides stimulation that causes the brain to grow. It grows from the bottom up. Also, one thing that’s really overlooked, and I think we can’t really understand physiology, we can’t understand the immune system, we can’t understand all sorts of things, we don’t understand that it’s really like we have two brains, a left and a right.

For a variety of reasons that I’m still trying to work out, that’s just somehow really vastly overlooked, and yet it’s so consistent in the literature and it’s so evolutionarily conserved. This goes back to the beginning of animals, really. When we develop, our right brain develops mainly first in utero and in the first couple of years of life. Then the development switches over to the left hemisphere. Then they specialize in what they do and how they approach the world. Then as we continue to develop, they integrate and they work as a team. If things go off early on, which is not uncommon, in fact, I would say today is way more the rule than the exception, then we can get things happening that are downstream of this thing going off. Either the right hemisphere doesn’t really develop well and the left hemisphere comes on too early, or the right hemisphere, it’s super active and left hemisphere doesn’t really come online very well. Just through that lens, that actually explains way more of human health and disease than I ever appreciated was possible.

It’s just remarkable. I would just say that I’ve been studying the immune system for a long time and I could not believe when I first learned that the left hemisphere of the brain increases and amps up the immune system, and the right hemisphere calms it down. I would just say you cannot understand the immune system without understanding the brain, but a lot of people think they do, or they try.

Ari: There’s so many places we can go from here, but I just want to follow that train of thought that you were just explaining there. If the left brain amps up the immune system and the right brain relaxes it, tamps it down, what in turn is stimulating the left brain activity or the right brain activity?

Mel: Great questions. It can happen in a variety of ways. Either you can have, let’s say immune triggers that are triggering the left brain to react, but when we were talking about the developmental aspect, it can be more that the left hemisphere is already a bit more overstrong or overdominant already. It is already overactive. I think another important context with a lot of people, for many years have been asking about nature versus nurture and what comes first, chicken or egg. I think what a lot of this research has been showing-

Ari: Have you solved this age old mystery of chicken versus egg?

Mel: Yes, it’s-

Ari: Are you about to tell us the answer?

Mel: [laughter] Definitely, I’m not, just teasing. I’m going to leave that for part seven. What a lot of this research shows is that we have traits that we inherent, tendencies, flavors that run in families, and then we have environments and experience that’s superimposed on those. You might already have a tendency towards overstrength of one and the other, and then life happens and teases that apart or emphasizes it even more. With the left hemisphere being more overactive, that could be because you have parents who have really strong left hemispheres. We can go into what that often looks like clinically or in terms of health and personality.

Then now you get extra immune insults and what we have in modern times where people are being exposed to a lot of things that evolutionarily they were not used to in terms of quantity, and then that creates a loop. Conversely, if you’re more right hemisphere dominant, because one of the roles of these hemispheres is to regulate the other, they’re meant to work together, there’s meant to be a balance.

If you are more right hemisphere dominant and you’re suppressing your immune system, then you can end up just with these chronic yucky immune stuff where you can never get over the cold and you’re always coming down with things because you’re not able to mount a sufficient response with a fever and all the whole nine yards because of that.

The tale of two brains

Ari: Very interesting. Let’s zoom out, big picture. You mentioned this very basic observation of we have a left brain and a right brain, and the fact that so many of us have overlooked this very basic thing, and you’re suggesting there’s something really important going on there. Why has evolution created a separate left and right brain? It’s not truly separate, but somewhat separated left and right brain. What is the answer to that? Why has nature designed us in that way? What purpose does it serve?

Mel: By having a specialization of function in the different hemispheres, it actually increases our complexity. We’re able to do more things. I also want to tease into a little bit of the discussion around this of people say, “No, this is hogwash. We’ve got one brain that does all the same thing.” Essentially, if you think about, for example, a bird that’s on the beach and it needs to both find food, which is looking down and looking at detail and trying to find little grubs, and it also needs to look up and notice if there are any predators around. It can do what some people try to do, is multitask, keep looking up and down and try to hope for the best or it actually uses its right hemisphere, which is attached to its left eye to look up. I’m sorry, let me get that right. It uses its left hemisphere attached to its right eye to look down and see the detail. It’s able to do those two things at the same time because it has a brain that’s fairly separated in how it’s approaching things.

What I want to be clear is that both sides are involved in what the bird is doing, which is safely feeding. Sometimes there can be a little confusion around this topic or a little bit of controversy because some people will say, “Oh, the research shows that both sides of the brain are active when you’re doing things.” That is true, but they’re usually contributing something different to what you are doing. Also, the right brain is generally involved in calming things down. The left hemisphere might be about approach behavior or doing certain things, and the right hemisphere is about turning them off.

Both sides might be active when you’re doing something, but one side of the activity might be about putting on a brake or inhibiting versus the other. Then when it comes to humans, we have the most lateralized and specialized brains. We have the most complex brains. It’s really just about increased efficiency and increased ability to do different things. If there is, let’s say, brain damage in a certain area, the surrounding areas can pick up the slack. There is a flexibility built in. When I first heard these ideas and I mainly studied these from someone called Dr. Robert Melillo, who’s done exceptional work in this area and has been treating neurodevelopmental disorders for decades and just got his PhD.

He’s a very smart guy. When I first started hearing these ideas from him, at first I was like, “This can’t be right. This is too simple. I would have known about this.” When you start reading about it because I’m barely used to wading into the research literature to read on a new topic, and I’m like, “Wow, this is actually very consistent. This is very pervasive.” There isn’t really too much controversy here. Clearly, there’s specialization in the brains. We can’t really understand ourselves, or our body, or clinically how to help someone if we don’t really understand some of the basics here.

Ari: I have a couple things that I want to insert here that it’s a bit of a tangent and digression. I feel like you might be a good person to ask these questions. I’m interested in doing a little bit of quick myth debunking that’s related to this topic. One of those myths is this long held idea from many decades ago that we have a left brain and a right brain. The left brain is math, and logic, and analytical thinking. The right brain is creativity, and artistic ability, and visualization, and that sort of thing.

Let’s flag that as one thing I’d like you to speak to and debunk because it’s largely not true. I don’t know to what extent you’re aware of that. I have a neuroscientist friend who is driven crazy by that common misconception that people have. The other one is the still often asserted idea that we only use 10% of our brains. Can you speak quickly to those two things and then I want to jump back into the other conversation.

Mel: I think so. To give a little bit of context on what you were just speaking about, it’s been known in different ways since at least the late 1800s that there was specialization of function in the sides. There was a neuroscientist named Broca from France and another one called Wernicke from Germany. They found that certain language functions were for most people in their left brain. Then in the 1960s, there was a researcher named Sperry who ended up winning the Nobel Prize. He did a lot of research.

We’re having different types of seizures, epilepsy, that if they cut the corpus callosum, which is the bridge between the two hemispheres so that they weren’t communicating anymore, the purpose was to stop the seizure spreading. What you ended up with, it’s like a surprisingly normal seeming person who has a left and right hemisphere who don’t communicate. Then they did all these experiments on them where they could feed information through one eye, or the other, or all sorts of– It’s really quite interesting. That’s when they started to find that the dominant hemisphere, which for most people’s left was verbal communication, but the right hemisphere might be nonverbal communication, and certain functions were housed there. Then what happened is that this fed into this BS popular science where you would see these memes of the left hemisphere is male and the right hemisphere is female. When you see those charts, a lot of them are not accurate. I think that that is what has led a lot of researchers, and neurologists, and psychologists, and other clinicians to discard the whole thing because of that pop science aspect.

I feel confident looking at the literature that they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, that there is specialization, that a lot of the memes just aren’t accurate in it. Creativity, what do you mean by that? There are going to be certain functions and certain ways of seeing that are going to be more housed. For example, certain types of math are more left hemisphere when you’re doing calculations and working with certain numbers, but problem-based math is going to be more right hemisphere that really requires context and reverse engineering.

Hopefully, that’s helping with the nuance that those brain memes with all the rainbows and numbers coming out of the brain, those functions are often not accurate. It is, I think, true to say that we do have the specialization of functions. It’s worth learning about them because it’s super interesting and it’s a better way to understand yourself and other people.

Are we only using 10% of our brain?

Ari: Excellent. The 10% of the brain.

Mel: Oh, boy. I don’t know how to speak to that.

Ari: Just say it’s false.

Mel: It sounds pretty false. It sounds pretty fishy to me. [laughter]

Ari: I still, interestingly enough, see people who claim to be brain experts, not formally trained, of course, like actual neuroscience experts, but people more like in the realm of new age, spiritual gurus claiming that we only use 10% of our brain at any given time.

Mel: Maybe they’re using 10%.

Ari: [laughter] That could be the answer to the mystery after all.

Mel: There you go. In serious note and to give the credit to that perspective, I think that it would be fair to say that we’re using a very small amount of our human potential, which may be a little bit different than using 10% of our brain.

Ari: Right. It would be hard to justify millions of years of evolution to have kept all of this energetically costly tissue if it wasn’t in use.

Mel: Quite. I’m not sure that’s a helpful or accurate way of approaching things. I’m going to agree with you on that.

Ari: If anybody’s interested, if anybody does have this conception, has heard this idea that we use only 10% of our brains, you can do a quick Google Search and say, is this true? There are plenty of articles debunking that. A simple debunking of it is put somebody into an FMRI machine where you can observe their brain activity in real time. You can see that maybe at any given moment, depending on what they are doing, certain brain regions might be more or less active. If they do other things, those brain regions that were less active initially would become active.

Mel: Maybe– Sorry, go ahead.

Ari: Go ahead. No, you go ahead.

Mel: Maybe more helpful way of looking at this because I agree with you, I don’t know where that comes from, but one very pervasive problem that we do have and tying back to what we’re talking about, is how well the parts of our brain are working together. It’s not how much of our brain is switched on or metabolically active, but are they coherent? If we imagine the two sides of our brain, for example, as our two legs, do they have different agendas? Are they working together in concert? That’s really the bigger issue. There’s this very broad clinical area called functional disconnection.

It’s really where you don’t necessarily have an organic issue in your brain where you have an injury, or a tumor, or a lesion, or anything like that, but you just don’t have the different parts syncing up and working together as a team. This is actually, I would say, the big issue. This does go also back to development because as we develop, our brains are working at different speeds. Babies sleep all the time, so they have a lot of delta brain rhythm. There’s a developmental component, but if you have one side of your brain that’s matured faster than the other, then they’re actually working at different speeds, which makes it very hard for them to work together.

How dysfunction in early brain development affects adult health

Ari: Very interesting. Before we lose too many people by geeking out on all of this stuff without telling people why it matters, let’s tell them why it really matters. How does this information about early brain development, about the left and the right brain, about different functions being segmented into one part or the other, how does any of this tie into our health?

Mel: I’m always cautious to not [unintelligible 00:20:35] because I think that happens a lot because it makes it easier to understand, even if it’s not true. I would say that the nervous system is a really helpful organizing system to understand if you want to understand anything about your health. Trying to understand your health through the lens of your hormones, or your inflammatory markers, or your microbiota without understanding how the nervous system regulates at all or doesn’t, if it hasn’t developed well, is futile. I have found, and not for lack of trying, I’ve had a long circuitous route to this understanding.

I think, as well, I want to be cautious about saying that uneven development or poor development is the because of everyone’s problems. That’s probably not true. It is probably the most overlooked area, and it is very relevant to a lot of people, if not most people. Even if we have someone who developed well, let’s say, but how quickly are they degenerating? If we see that the higher areas of the brain are shrinking, then we’re getting development and diverse. This whole conversation about how the nervous system develops and how it goes backwards through the lifespan, it’s going to be relevant for everyone with a nervous system.

Part of the aha to me was, first of all, you can’t understand these things that we’re trying to understand without looking through this lens. Also, studying the nervous system is complex, and people who do it have very detailed understanding of the brain and different ways to access it. There are some simple starting points that are really such low-hanging fruit. One of them that I would love to increase people’s awareness of is understanding what primitive reflexes are, what it means when they’re retained, how simple it is to test for them, and how this is a first things first in terms of addressing chronic health issues.

It also illustrates the importance of what we’re talking about. I’ll go a little bit into that because I think it’s really important. When we’re born, we have a very immature brain. We don’t have this ability to intentionally do things like, oh, I’m going to move my arm now, and now I’m going to walk or whatever. We do have what are called primitive reflexes, so these early life reflexes. Many of them start in the womb. Some of them, their job is actually to help the baby move and position themselves in order to be born, which is cool. Then once they’re born, it lets them do really simple survival things like turn towards mom’s boob, and open mouth, and latch, and suck.

It’s not able to do that consciously yet, but it has these brainstem reflexes that allows it to do that. There are other reflexes that are going to allow baby to follow their hand with their eyes, and that’s going to be developing like short-range vision. Then it’s going to help them roll over. Then we get different postural reflexes, different crawling things, and we’re getting into milestones now. This is a sequence, almost like a symphony that’s playing in an axe where the movement of the reflex is actually driving the development of the brain, it’s helping the brain to grow. Then as the brain grows, it’s going to come down and regulate so that those reflexes are no longer present.

They don’t go away, but you can’t activate them. One of the tests that will be done for adults is to see if they have a brain injury or if they have neurodegeneration, is to see if those reflexes are there. They’re called frontal release signs, meaning that the front of the brain is now not working and those reflexes are back. If all goes well in development, and everything’s going in sequence, and we’re going from one step to the next, then those reflexes should be inhibited really by six months of age, most of them, and the latest one would be about one year of age. If you test a child that’s older than that, or an adult, and you can do these simple tests. I’ll show you the rooting reflex because it’s so simple, we can all understand that babies feed from mom’s boob. If you brush along the cheek, and if you’ve ever had a newborn infant, sometimes you do this, brush along the cheek and the mouth will grimace and open. If that is there on an older child or an adult, that is never normal. There isn’t a scenario in which you brush along the cheek and the mouth reflexively grimaces, and then that’s a normal thing to happen and it’s still immature.

It means that if those reflexes never went away in the first place, that the brainstem is immature. We could go in in a second, remind me to come back as to why that’s very important. You definitely all want to have a mature brainstem if you’re an adult or it means that the higher levels of the brain are not inhibiting. We can get these objective signs about the health of the nervous system just by doing that test where you can go through non-invasively, it takes less than 10 minutes, and get a window to see if these reflexes are present.

I’m not saying, again, that that’s the answer to everyone’s problems and that all we need to do is that, but it’s really, again, I would say a low-hanging fruit and a first things first, that if you have gut dysfunction, or dysautonomia, or concentration issues, or mood issues, or all of these different things, and we test you and you have your infantile reflexes for crawling and turning over are still present on exam, then it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to have a regulated nervous system.

Integrating those doesn’t necessarily mean that all of your problems go away, but because we grow from the bottom up like a tree, we need to start at the root, in the trunk first. If we’re starting out on these branches without addressing that, you’re not going to get very far.

The impact of an immature brainstem

Ari: If we have an immature brainstem, how does that affect us? Maybe before we go further, it might be important to speak to the malleability of the system. If we are talking about something that we can’t go back in time and change our upbringing, to what extent does any of this discussion even matter in the sense that is it even changeable as an adult?

Mel: Great questions. I only like to deal with solvable problems. I only test for things that can be addressed. That’s a good point. The first question is, what does it mean if you have an immature brainstem? There’s an increasing number of people who have, let’s say, dysautonomia. Their heart rate is going fast or slow, or they’re getting dizzy when they stand up, or their heart is racing when they stand up, or it’s irregular, all of those things, and they’re having issues with breathing, all of these things. All of those centers are housed in the brainstem, not too far away from where these reflexes are.

Another thing is that when the reflex gets triggered, it’s going to send activity up. It’s not supposed to be there. It’s a bit like if you’re trying to hum a tune and someone comes in and starts making noise, it’s hard to stay on task. It’s interfering with what you’re trying to do. It’s very hard to adult if your adult brain hasn’t developed in the first place on one side. It’s also hard to adult if you have these signals coming up that aren’t meant to be there, creating noise. That’s another thing. Now, I really appreciate you asking about the malleability of the system. It’s highly malleable.

Just like you can make your arms bigger by doing push-ups, you can provide targeted and specific stimulation to different areas of the system, and you can get them to grow. Actually, that speaks to another point that I wanted to make that there’s a lot of recommendations out there coming from different perspectives that are all well-intentioned and have some benefit to them. Because they are very generalized stimulation, not only are they not going to help a problem where you have unevenness of activity, but sometimes they can even make it worse because a more developed area is more metabolically active, and an underdeveloped area is going to be less metabolically active.

Let’s say you take the stimulus, like you take your red light, or your beamer, or your whatever, or a laser, and you’re just shining it around your head or whatever it is, but you’re not being targeted and specific, the overdeveloped area is actually going to preferentially receive that. It’s a little bit like if you have, I don’t know, a broken arm and a working arm and you’re like, “I’m just going to do push-ups.” The stronger arm is going to get stronger and the weaker arm is at least not going to get stronger. That is part of it. Definitely, I always like to think that it’s never too late to have a good childhood. I think that applies from certain psychological perspectives.

Also, from the development of the brainstem that really, at any age, this is also based partly on Dr. Melillo’s substantial clinical experience, that at any age, you can integrate these, particularly following general recommendations, but also specifically strengthening the weak areas while not overstrengthening or maybe even inhibiting the overstrong areas.

Most common health issues that have arisen from improper brain development in childhood

Ari: Make this really practical for everyone listening in the sense of what specific kinds of imbalances might you see or problems that arose from improper development of, let’s say, primitive reflexes or brain development more broadly in childhood? What specific health problems might that be linked to?

Mel: Great questions. If someone has, let’s say the left hemisphere of their brain has developed chronologically faster than you’d expect, and the right hemisphere is underdeveloped, and again, these things tend to go together because they’re meant to be mutually regulating each other, this pattern is strongly associated with autism and ADHD, and it goes along with all the comorbidities you get with those, like these inflammatory issues. In either sides, you’ll get gut dysfunction.

One thing I learned, again, shockingly recently, I can’t believe how long I thought I knew a lot about things and then learned these new things, but many people are aware of this issue with leaky gut, where your gut is too permeable. We all start off our life with a permeable gut, and that’s part of the reason why we’re not eating solid foods. For some people, their gut never became unleaky in the first place, which is a totally different frame.

Probiotics isn’t going to solve that problem. With the left hemisphere developing faster than the right, then depending on the parts affected, you get either the little professor who just is super smart, or two-year-olds who are reading, or these hyper-analytical skills, hyper-math skills, these savant skills, but without the social regulation, without the ability to fill their own body and space, and you get these inflammatory conditions. Certain types of autoimmunity can go along with this pattern.

On the other side, when we have a right hemisphere that has developed faster and more than we expect, and the left hemisphere hasn’t come on as well, then this is more associated with patterns that we see with dyslexia. This is more associated with things like major depression can go along with this because the left hemisphere is like the torrid behavior, the right hemisphere is the break. We can get certain types of anxiety that are associated more with the right hemisphere dominance. There’s also other flavors of anxiety that are associated more with the left.

With the right hemisphere, because of the immune relationship, you tend to get stuck with these lingering chronic infections. Again, I said this before, but at first when I was hearing these ideas, I’m like, “This can’t be right.” There is nuance to it, but starting off looking at hemispheres is a good place to start. Then, of course, there are sub-patterns within this, and there’s individuality within this. Even looking at certain things like people who have a relatively overdeveloped right hemisphere, they have a lower or can have a lower white blood cell count.

I have a number of patients who have chronically low white blood cell counts to the point where their doctors are like, “Oh my God, you’re going to die.” It’s been like that for years. They go on year to year, and they don’t die, and it’s fine. It always bothered me because I was like, “Why is this happening? What do we do about it?” I’ve been always thinking that. Then I looked at it and I was like, “Could it be that this is hemispheric?”

The research really supports that, that if you damage certain parts of the left hemisphere, you will get a low white blood cell count. If you have more activity in the right hemisphere, you will get a low white blood cell count. That issue was not going to be solved by immunoadaptogen supplement, blah, blah, blah. You really need to address the underlying cause there. Yes, it affects our personality, our strengths, our body. Actually a really important aspect as well is that our interoception, so our ability to sense our own body map, and plan, and levels of inflammation hormones lives in the right insula. The insula is a part of the brain that is under the tempo. I think it’s really specific to humans actually. It’s underneath the layer of the brain and really for us to be able to feel our body in space and to know what our digestion is doing and know what our emotions are doing is there.

If you are left hemisphere dominant and the right hemisphere is underdeveloped, you might not be able to feel your own body very well. We see this that in people with the most common patterns of let’s say ADHD or autism, they might not feel temperature as much. They’ll go out into the cold wearing shorts. They might not feel pain as directly and things like that. Understanding how the brain is specialized makes it understandable.

Ari: I’ve been writing a lot lately about willpower and impulse control. There’s a term, it’s somewhat nebulous term that is often defined slightly differently by different people, but it’s called conscientiousness. It is inclusive of willpower, and impulse control, and doing one’s duty, and self-discipline, and things of that nature. It’s highly linked to longevity of personality dimensions. Conscientiousness is the one that is the most strongly linked with longevity. There is a willpower longevity link. As I’ve been looking into this, and writing about it, and reading a lot of the research on it, it’s very interesting to see just how malleable and dynamic that system is.

Where in people who are exercisers, habitual exercisers for long periods of time, this area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex is highly, highly developed. It’s physically larger, and more robust, and more active. In people who are non-exercisers and people who are overweight or drug addicts and things like that, it’s much smaller and less active. This is not something that just occurs over years and decades. It’s something that you can literally measure changes in this system, like from a single session of exercise, for example, or a single instance of having strong impulse control, you have a strong desire to do something and you restrain yourself.

The famous studies in this field come from these, I think, they’re marshmallow studies or candy studies in little kids where they took little kids and they offered them one candy now, or if they waited 30 minutes, they could get two candies. They tracked these kids over decades and they found that this dimension, which again relates to conscientiousness, and willpower, and impulse control, was strongly predictive of so much of their later life success, financial success, healthy relationships, how likely they were to be obese or lean, how physically active they were, and ultimately longevity and risk of many diseases.

Anyway, I bring this up only to say it’s so interesting to see how malleable these different systems of the brain actually are. In the context of primitive reflexes and these different hemispheres of the brain, can you give a map of how one might begin, people listening, how one might begin to understand some of their specific symptoms or health problems as being a problem of one part of the brain or the other? Then I want to segue into maybe what we can do practically about that. I know that’s a very broad thing, but maybe you can piece it out.

Mel: Absolutely. With how to approach these things, there’s a spectrum from DIY, like reading a self-help book and suddenly everything becomes clear or doing a personality test to going to see a center of excellence where you get assessed and that sort of thing. I want to provide a framework to say that that spectrum exists, and that if you can find someone to assess you, then that’s always helpful. You can start to tease out these tendencies. First of all, your looking at your own history, did you have any– Actually, one thing I want to point out or going to make sure I say it is that, when we have these imbalances, it often goes part and parcel with having these extraordinary gifts or inabilities coupled with these deficits. Actually, understanding this about myself is one of the things that made my own life make much more sense than anything else. If you’re particularly good at certain things and terrible at other things, it’s really hard to make sense of that. Like, “Am I good? Am I bad? Do I suck? Am I awesome?” What’s going on with that anyways? I grew up in a worldview where you were just good at things, or you weren’t, which is obviously limited and not accurate.

We get these mixes, but if you look at your own life history, and if you’re an adult watching, looking at childhood, were there things that you were particularly great at? Were there things that you particularly found challenging? Also, your own health throughout your lifespan, so were you pretty healthy, happy, well-adjusted, happy healthy family of origin until you were in your 40s? Then the developmental lens is probably not predominant for you as a rough guide.

Versus someone who’s like, “Oh my God, I was getting all these ear infections, then they took my tonsils out, and I was on all these antibiotics. I had this really unstable household where either there was food insecurity or bad emotional relationships, and there wasn’t emotional nurturing,” or different things like that. The history starts there. Then looking at your current health issues through a developmental lens is probably going to be really useful, especially if you’ve never done it before. That would be one way to parse it out.

Then doing a combination of looking at health and cognitive skills, and even personality skills to a certain extent that’s organized this way can give a rough overview, and then having a primitive reflex exam. Dr. Melillo has written a book where he teaches parents how to administer this on their kids. I include this in my program because I realized I was specializing in autoimmunity, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia, and this was a really big missing piece for most of my patients, so I teach patients.

I had a patient in Australia, and her engineer husband did this exam on her. They recorded it and we got really actionable data from it. You just wouldn’t get this information any other way. Or you go to someone who’s trained to give the exam. That’s always the best thing if you can access it to do that. Then you just have your starting point there and you can start to see it. What I’ve found is that when I start to have these conversations– again, if you’re tapping on something that’s truthy, people have already started to sense this, and then it just starts to make sense to them.

Ari: Can you give some specific examples? It doesn’t have to be from the one you just mentioned of the person in Australia, but maybe some stories of what specifically was found upon the examination and how that led to approaching resolution of those symptoms or health problems through this–

Mel: Sure. I’m very transparent. I’m always happy to share my own health story because that also informs a lot of my work. For me, I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune condition in my early 20s, I was doing my own lab testing, and I found additional autoimmune conditions later on. I had antibodies to my own collagen. I had digestive issues from early childhood. I had all sorts of things like this, and I had done so much over the years and I’ve done a lot of training and I’ve been honing my diet. I’ve been doing this lab testing, all of these sorts of things, and I had made a lot of progress by the way. It wasn’t that nothing had done anything.

I’d made a lot of progress, but by the time I then realized that this was a really important lens, I also found the history of– both my parents are really, really nerdy, so it’s very clear that there’s a left hemisphere dominant trait that runs very strongly in my family. In the offspring, that can just create a bit of susceptibility to certain issues. I went, and I was actually a patient or am a patient of Dr. Melillo. When he tested my primitive reflexes, almost all of them were there strongly.

Again, as I said, that’s just never a normal finding. Whether or not someone has their own ideas about the significance or how truthy these models are or whatever that is, it’s just never for a 41-year-old middle-aged woman to have this rolling reflex. It’s just not supposed to be there. It’s so much of the advice out there.

I was functioning reasonably well, but I was having a lot of attention issues, which I’d had from childhood, a lot of memory issues, and a lot of just different cognitive issues. A lot of the advice out there is really top-down. It’s about teaching you strategies for organizing better, or how to lay out your books, or how to use certain software. Now, to contrast that with the fact that I had retained primitive reflexes, it’s not going to work, right?

Doing a targeted approach to integrate those reflexes by stimulating them, and stimulating my brain, my memory has vastly improved. That’s based on testing as well, so doing a cognitive testing. My posture’s improved, my pain levels have reduced, all of those things. I definitely, just through my own experience, can see how important this is because I know all the things I did before. A lot of them are really good, and a lot of them are really helpful, but again, if you have brainstem immaturity, none of these other techniques and tools which have validity in the right context and may have some use to them are going to solve that problem.

Ari: Tell me again, what it was that you did in terms of this. You stimulated the primitive reflexes?

Mel: Yes. The way we’re meant to develop in the first place, the way we were meant to integrate in the first place is that they become integrated through stimulation. Doing the trigger that makes this reflex fire is what drives the development of the brain higher up to come down and inhibit them. Even if you’re middle-aged or older, if you do exercises that stimulate those reflexes, and you need to do it often, you need to repeat it, then that ends up driving the development of the brain that will help it to catch up.

Ari: That’s really interesting. You’re stimulating these primitive reflexes, and that leads to them being integrated into the higher centers of the brain.

Mel: Yes. It physically grows the higher centers of the brain to come down and integrate them.

Ari: Wow. Very interesting. What is an example of the other side of it? Presumably, if you had autoimmunity issues that would imply left hemisphere dominance, how would right hemisphere dominance present? Take me through that sequence of the symptoms that might present, what you might find based on primitive reflex testing, and then what you do about it.

Mel: Yes, sure. I want to clarify, if I haven’t already, that we’re going to see more than two patterns. Once we dial in, we’re not going to see a left hemisphere pattern and a right hemisphere pattern. I want to anticipate people’s reservations because that would be a fair reservation, right? Within that, we do have some diversity. If someone has more of a right hemisphere dominance, and what you’ve just said is correct, but I am actually also seeing some autoimmunity in the right hemisphere dominant folks, I think that’s more because they’ve allowed these infections to simmer for so long, so it might be later.

Because with the right hemisphere dominance, we get a less active or inhibited immune system, I think it can metabolically predispose people towards cancer because they have less immune surveillance, and also predispose them to more chronic viral infection because they’re not able to ramp up the response, whether that’s creating the right cells or increasing their body temperature to get rid of them, so we get chronic infections.

I think that this is fair to say, and this is supported in literature, but it’s also just observational, folks who are more right-hemisphere dominant are going to be the ones who will end up super-duper sensitive when they’re sick. These are the folks who can feel electricity, they can feel the 5G, if they get one single mold spore part per billion, they are done. They are definitely not making this up, and that’s going to be more of a right hemisphere dominance where the left hemisphere is separating us off from our environment for more right hemisphere, and we’re also sick on top of it, then there’s just going to be no way for us to defend ourselves from what’s going on.

Now, what I’ve seen with left hemisphere, not to jump around too much, is that because folks in this category can have a lower sense of interoception, they might not report any symptoms, and the first problems they have might be serious. For example, I had a patient who was a husband of a patient. When he came to see me, he had been completely healthy, normal weight, active, reasonable diet, no lifestyle factors, and feeling good. His first symptom of a problem was a heart attack.

His doctors could not figure this out, and when I ran his labs, to me, it was actually quite clear what had happened, which is that he did have a very permeable gut, he had very high levels of antibodies to something called lipopolysaccharides, which just means that the bacteria that are meant to stay in the gut, when they get out into the bloodstream, the immune system tags that as an infection. He had off-the-charts levels of that.

I tested his primitive reflexes, they were very much there, but also taking a history, talking to him, he said, “If I’d been born later, I definitely would have been diagnosed with ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed at the time. My handwriting was so bad, my grandparents send me to have handwriting lessons.” That’s neurological. That’s looking after your brain, fine motor control, and all of these things. It was that kind of persistent endotoxemia that led him to have this heart attack, but he didn’t have any warning of any problem. He was very inflamed, but he was not aware of it because, presumably, his right insula and anterior cingulate cortex on the right side were dialed down, so he wasn’t getting that message.

In terms of left and right, when you do a primitive reflex exam, those can look similar. When we have these developmental imbalances, whether it’s more of a right brain dominance or a left brain dominance, a primitive reflex exam is going to look similar, depending on what your findings are, but then once we dive into your signs and symptoms and also we do other testing, there’s a more in-depth neurological exam and then we can start to see really, is it more of a right brain dominance or left brain dominance.

Ari: The right brain versus left brain dominance is determined less by the primitive reflex testing and more by signs and symptoms?

Mel: By signs and symptoms and the other neurological exam, that’s right. The primitive reflex exam itself isn’t going to tell you if it’s left or right, it just tends to be there because of this difference in maturity, one way or another, but then a more in-depth neurological exam and also history questionnaire would help to give a pattern of if it was more of a left or right delay.

Strategies to develop an underdeveloped brain

Ari: Beyond stimulating the primitive reflexes, are there any other strategies that are used to develop these maybe underdeveloped parts of the brain or maybe suppress overactive parts of the brain?

Mel: Great question. A lot of what I’ve learned about this again is from Dr. Melillo. I suppose I’m doing some innovation because I’m mainly working with adults and I’m finding that there are some distinctions to be made, but his approach, which I really like, and it makes sense, is that you are going to stimulate the primitive reflexes in order to get the brain to grow to inhibit them. That’s really what was supposed to happen the first time.

In terms of stimulating one side of the brain, we can use any sensory modality to do that. We can use light into one eye, we can use sound into one ear. If we want to stimulate the right, we can do sound into the left. The different ears actually prefer different pitches and tones, which is interesting. The same thing with the eyes, are going to be specialized for different colors, which is very interesting.

We can use motor and movement, we can use vibration. Any smell, of course, is really important one as well. Any sensory stimulus, as long as it makes sense and it’s based on the person that we’re trying to help, we can use to stimulate that. In terms of calming down the overactive side, the only example I’ve really seen of this– well, actually, no. As I say, I can think of another example. Dr. Melillo is more and more using lasers to target underactive networks and areas, but using certain frequencies, you can use those frequencies to inhibit the other side.

The other example I thought of is that if I wanted to really provide more stimulus to say my right hemisphere and I really just wanted to calm down the left hemisphere, then I could cover one lens and not provide visual stimulation. I can put in an earbud and not provide auditory stimulation, and do that for an hour as part of my therapy. You can use these basic physics principles to really– an example of this, actually, where this is used outside of this area is– what doctors and researchers have found is if someone has a stroke, and they lose the ability to use one side of their body, the best way to help them regain it is to restrain the other side, which is a newer idea, but it forces them to use that side that’s been damaged, and then they’re able to often gain a lot of function back. This is a principle–

Ari: The same principle that’s applied to kids with lazy eye to patch the dominant eye.

Mel: Yes, exactly. We can, again, use these principles of activation and restraint to provide really specific stimulus where something might be a little bit underactive and calm down where something might be overactive.

Ari: Very interesting. I have a whole long list of questions that I wanted to ask you in this interview that I expected we’d get to, including some that I wanted to get to in the first interview, which shows you how much we have to talk about here, in particular, autonomic nervous system function, heart rate, heart rate variability. I watched some very intriguing presentations that you did on that. I have lots of questions, and I think there’s lots to educate on there for you to educate people on.

I think we have to save it for the next conversation, but maybe to wrap this one up, I’m curious, is there any aspect of this discussion– maybe instead of me directing it at this moment, I want to ask you, is there anything that you feel would be sort of a capstone, something that helps complete this set of ideas that you’ve explained here so far?

Mel: That’s a lovely question. I think your question about how malleable the brain is really brings us home, that when we’re talking about this, this is not deterministic, which means that we’re not using this lens and way of understanding to label you and put you in a box and tell you to stay there. Quite the opposite, right? I think that understanding these principles of bottom-up development, of left and right specialization, because it’s accurate, and as I say, it’s so evolutionarily conserved, you cannot argue with it, is really liberating, because I think it helps people make a lot of sense of their challenges in their life.

It also opens up really new avenues for health, healing, and growth that are not really available if you don’t understand this, and really help you transcend things that you think are just who you are, that allow you to really be who you are by supporting areas that need more support and to allow you to have also– these things are definitely addressable, especially when you understand where to look.

Are we celebrating pathology?

Ari: Beautiful. Maybe one other thing. Before we started recording, you mentioned that you had one bit of concern, something you might express that might offend some people. I didn’t catch it in this conversation. I’m curious what it is. This doesn’t have to be part of the official conversation, we can edit this out, but I’m curious if you’d be interested in expressing that and maybe speaking to why it offends some people and why maybe it shouldn’t offend those people.

Mel: I’m really glad that you asked that. When I first started delving deeply into this for myself and for my patients, I’m a curious person and started sharing about it. I received some blowback that I wasn’t quite expecting. What I understand now is that there’s an increasing growth in number of people who consider themselves neurodiverse and an increasing awareness and acceptance of the differences in how people function and see the world.

This is a nice thing, and this is a little bit of a pendulum swing from really terrible and ignorant intolerance and this really pathological view that everyone should be the same. We have this pendulum swing that’s like, “Everything goes. Everything is valid. Everything’s wonderful. Everything should be celebrated.” What I hadn’t appreciated is that when I start talking about brain imbalances and how we can correct them, some people hear me pathologizing them and saying, “The way that you are is not healthy, and this is how we fix it.”

I want to clarify that. I’m not labeling anyone as wrong, but there’s certain aspects of us that are who we are, and there are other aspects of us that are how we are when we’re not functioning well. It can be a little bit well-intentioned, but unhelpful to start celebrating the things that are actually the pathology, and to know that this is not coming from a place of judgment, it’s definitely coming from a place of personal experience, but also, we understand that it’s really about helping you become more of who you are.

It’s also optional, by the way. Some people who, let’s say, struggle with ADHD or autism or tics or bipolar threats, and have made significant peace with that, and maybe they’ve received a label and that was very helpful, if that’s working well for you, then definitely continue with that.

For other people, if you feel like a diagnosis of ADHD fits you and you’d rather be able to have control over how you direct your attention, I find that helpful, and I’ve experienced a lot of my life without being able to do that. I prefer being able to do that. I’m pointing towards a way of understanding things that would help you actionize that without making you wrong or pathologizing you or any of that. Would literally be, “We have five types of attention. Four of them live in the right hemisphere. One of them, the direct focus deep attention lives in the left hemisphere, and so this area is underactive.”

It can be very hard to overcome that with willpower or with good intention. This is really for people who are looking for this type of solution for whom it resonates with them. I’m definitely not wanting to make to make anyone wrong, and I want everyone to feel very proud of who they are.

Ari: I think that’s beautifully said. I think this is such an interesting topic. As I was listening to you, my brain was generating other examples, but I think of individual variation in height or in hair color or eye color or skin color. Skin color is maybe a controversial one. Maybe I’ll leave that one out because that’s historically so problematic. Shoe size or something arbitrary like that, or finger length or whatever, that we have all these individual variation and we don’t think anything of it. We truly accept that there is normal variation in these different traits that humans can have, and nothing is made of it, but we have other traits that we have individual variation that feel more a part of us, that feel more who we are. We are that thing, “This is part of my identity and my personality.”

It’s interesting. Culturally, some of those traits might actually be pathologized by society, so that can invoke this defensive response of, “Hey, accept me. Normally stop pathologizing me as having a problem. This is who I am and it’s normal to have diversity in this just like diversity in height or hair color or foot size or whatever else.” Then there’s this other dimension of it, which is malleability and functionality in life, and health, and happiness, to the extent that something is malleable, and you can affect it to the extent that something is impairing your function, or your health, or your quality of life, or your happiness, or your ability to have healthy relationships.

Presumably, one might have an interest in wanting to address that and improve that. How can we speak to that and help people who want to be helped without also making people feel bad, without pathologizing them, without making them feel like they have some problem and we’re shunning them. It’s very interesting to navigate that landscape.

Mel: There’s a lot of moving parts. For me, I’ve learned it’s really to be flexible and humble. It’s about meeting people where they are. There’s a time in anyone’s journey where acceptance is most healthy, acceptance of a problem is most healthy. There are other times when not accepting the problem is healthy. It’s not that it’s one’s right or one’s wrong. It’s often a timing thing. Even with these labels, it’s increasingly common that adults are receiving these neurodevelopmental labels. I’ve seen over and over again how helpful that has been in certain regards in terms of people feeling less self-judgment, so an adult receiving diagnosis of ADHD breathing a sigh of relief and saying, “Ah, okay, I knew something was different and this got missed,” and how healing that can be.

It can also be constraining if then you think, “Well, this is just who I am.” That’s fine, which may be great for you right now, that might be working, or you can say, “This label fits and I want to see what I can do.” Not from a place of not loving yourself or rejecting yourself, but from a place of wanting growth or wanting something different. I think there’s always this thread of if you’re trying to grow, that you’re basically saying, “I’m here and I want to be there,” and that can be done in a healthy way, that can be done in a way where there’s self-rejection, and there might be little flavors of both mixed in. Who knows?

This is definitely like an open conversation, but I want to help provide people with another option besides, “Everyone should be able to do this and that and the other. If you’re different, you’re bad,” or the other option, “Anything goes. Your night terrors and diarrhea, that’s just who you are. Your inability to make eye contact, why do we insist everyone should make eye contact?” and all of these things, and say, “Well, no, there’s a third option, which is that this is how the brain develops. This is how we can support healthy development. We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with you as a person,” but for me, it’s really about helping people be the truest expression of who they are.

The example, the metaphor that I see that best illustrates this is that when people have brain imbalances, they will tend to have symmetry imbalances in their face. I can see like your right side has a little bit more tone than your left. You can look at people and see this. When you start treating a kid who has these issues, you will see at some point that their smile becomes a full smile. That’s what we’re talking about, that person is now fully themselves. I’m not trying to make them fit into a carbon, cookie-cutter society. I want them to be their full expression of themselves. That’s the opportunity here.

Ari: Very interesting. I think there’s one more little dimension to this that I want to add, which is I think this also speaks to what extent a person sees themselves as being a dynamic, malleable entity. I’ve, for example, been an athlete and training in fitness and bodybuilding since a very young age, an athlete since I was five years old. In my later childhood and teenage years, I was a high-level athlete and then I became a personal trainer. I was very into bodybuilding for many years. I learned from a very young age that the systems of my body and my brain are highly malleable and that I can train to influence how my body and brain behave.

I can imagine I would say probably most of society who doesn’t necessarily grow up with such a strong influence in terms of that, a strong experience of understanding how malleable they are, they might be much more inclined to think of their body and brain as a sort of static, unchangeable entity. “This is who I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” There’s nuance here. It depends on what specific trait because like you can’t change your hair color, your eye color, or your skin color to an extent based on sun exposure, but your foot size or whatever. Certain things absolutely are genetically predetermined, you can’t change them, but lots of other things are highly malleable.

It would seem strange if someone said to me, “This is how much muscle mass I have. This is how strong I am. There’s nothing I can do about it,” and I’m like, “Yes. Actually, there’s a lot you can do about it. You can train using weights and you can make those muscles way stronger.”

Mel: The distinction I’d make there because I think that’s a really excellent point that some of it will certainly have to do with conditioning. There’s a great book by Carol Dweck called Mindset in terms of fixed mindset versus growth mindset and whether or not you believe that you can develop. But then another aspect is being able to be flexible, future-oriented. Even things we were talking about about willpower and conscientiousness are emergent properties of a healthy system. When your system is less healthy, it actually needs to become more rigid.

I’m someone who was brought up with the beliefs that I could change, and I was also heavily into sports. My worldview is that people can change and develop, but when my whole neurological system was not adaptive and not working well, that belief didn’t matter because my nervous system is the result of billions of years of evolution, and it knows what to do when it sees an emergency, and that’s not to have a growth mindset necessarily. It’s really to focus on other things.

This is also another really helpful distinction, I think, that if someone– they have dysautonomia, they’re inflamed, and they are really struggling, and then they’re like, “Do I just need to believe in myself more?” that might not work at that time. Or hitting the gym and trying to lift weights, that might not work. If we can start first things first in the right order and get people out of those emergencies, at least they need to believe enough to know that that’s possible, then they can get to a level of health where they can then start developing themselves.

Ari: Beautifully said. Mel, let’s wrap this one up. We still have lots more to talk about, so we’ll have another conversation. I look forward to part 3. I really enjoy talking with you and allowing these conversations to unfold organically and seeing where they take us. Let people know, just to wrap this one up, where they can get in touch with you, what services or products you have, or whatever you want to let people know about, send them where you want to send them.

Mel: Okay, thank you. I have two groups that are online at One is for members of the public who have mainly complex chronic health issues like autoimmunity, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and all this neurodiversity that often goes along with it. You can find that there. Then I also have a separate group for practitioners who want to learn how to address and use these frameworks and understand the order of operations to help people. Also, a lot of practitioners have their own health issues as well, so it’s my goal. I feel like if you are a health practitioner learning, then you should be getting healthier as you go through that process. That’s part of the aim there.

Ari: Beautiful. Say the website one more time?


Ari: Beautiful. Mel, thank you so much. I look forward to our next conversation.

Mel: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Show Notes

00:00  – Intro
00:45 – Guest intro – Dr. Mel Hopper
02:45 – How childhood development may affect adult health
09:38 – The tale of two brains
17:23 –  Are we only using 10% of our brain?
20:50 – How dysfunction in early brain development affects adult health
27:48 – The impact of an immature brainstem
31:29 – Most common health issues that have arisen from improper brain development in childhood
53.35 – Strategies to develop an underdeveloped brain
58:58 – Are we celebrating pathology?


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