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From the Executive Director: The Power of Hope and Brain Science

By Stacy Eslick | January 2019

WSCA is looking forward to seeing our counseling colleagues at our annual conference, where we will focus on the power of hope. When thinking of hope, I am drawn to resilience and the growing body of research on the brain’s neuroplasticity. Thinking about the potential futures of our students is exciting, despite the challenges they may face.
In 2000, London Taxi Cab Study compared the brains of experienced London cab drivers and bus drivers. The authors noted that bus drivers have well-established, unchanging routes, while taxi drivers undergo extensive training to learn to navigate to thousands of locations within the city. This made the taxi drivers the ideal group to study the effects of spatial experience on brain structure. The study used MRI scans of the hippocampus, which is known to facilitate spatial memory in the form of navigation. The study found that the posterior hippocampi of the taxi drivers were much larger than those of the bus drivers. And the longer someone drove a taxi, the larger their hippocampus. The Taxi Cab Study demonstrated an amazing example of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize and transform itself as it is exposed to learning and new experiences. By continually learning new routes, the cab drivers’ brains created new neural pathways in response to the need to store an increasingly detailed spatial representation. These pathways then permanently changed the structure and size of the brain.
Hope is critical for our students to benefit from neuroplasticity. How can we encourage them to believe in their dreams and understand life is not static? The late, Charles R. Snyder (University of Kansas) was the leading pioneer in hope research and his model has three components: goals, agency and pathways. 

We know through trauma research that neuropathways are impacted by adverse experiences. Valerie Maholmes, chief of the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), writes about her research on the power of hope in resilience in her book "Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty: Why Hope Still Matters." Maholmes shared in an interview in the American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology that she wants to “challenge deterministic ideologies that children who are poor and who experience adversity early in life are ‘set’ on a negative course of development.” She points to early childhood intervention programs that teach emotion regulation and foster cognitive development and executive function and suggests strategies for older students that include meditation, solution-focused therapy and narrative therapies. These can help students learn to reframe negative events, think differently about how they respond to and solve problems, and overall, increase their likelihood of a more hopeful and optimistic outlook on life and with positive outcomes.
If you are interested in learning more about the intersectionality of hope, resiliency and neuroplasticity, there is a growing research base and cross disciplinary collaboration to share resources. Just two resources to learn more are:
  • The Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon is leading research and interventions in the area of neuroplasticity and child development. Learn more about Changing Brains, which features information and practical, science-based ideas for educators and parents.
  • Harvard is the site of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC). This multidisciplinary, multi-university collaboration was created in 2003 to combine scientific knowledge with child development to overcome barriers to understanding and applying science. Learn more about the vast resources on the NSCDC website.
Wisconsin school counselors are hope makers for our students and families. As science continues to evolve so will our practice to build hope for ALL students.

Contact Stacy Eslick, executive director of WSCA, at
Engel, B. (2019). What London Taxi Drivers Can Teach Us About Our Brains.  
Lu, S. (2014). Turning lives around with hope. American Psychological Association: Monitor on Psychology.
Weir, K. (2013). Mission impossible Being hopeful is good for you — and psychologists’ research is pinpointing ways to foster the feeling. American Psychological Association: Monitor on Psychology.  
Translating Hope Theory into Hospital-Based Palliative Care Practice, by Todd R. Cote MD. PowerPoint video: