Could your picky eater have bigger issues? Dr. Robert Melillo, a university professor, brain researcher, best selling author and co-founder of Brain Balance Achievement Centers, a holistic, drug-free approach to addressing behavioral, social, or learning difficulties, will tell us the signs your child could have a brain imbalance. He will also share his groundbreaking secrets on how to restore this balance and raise a smarter kid.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: How did you get interested in the brain?
Dr. Melillo: Well, I am a clinician and my interest has always been in and started out in neurology and rehabilitation. And, I started out working with adults, and it was a lot of cool brain science coming out in the early nineties when I was really developing a lot of this. And the nineties was a decade of the brain and we could see new ways of imaging the brain in real-time, things like PET scans, and SPECT scans, and FMRI where just coming out. So, all of these explosion of brain research came out about the dynamics of the brain and the way the brain works and the way it develops. And it really, what is at the core of a lot of these issues… And it was realized that even most adult problems are actually developmental — that there is something that goes awry in the development of the brain.
Kelly: why is it important that the brain is balanced? Because some of the greatest minds in history, you know, Einstein, even maybe some Silicon Valley CEO’s, such as Elon Musk, have an imbalance, and is it not the thing that makes them great? I mean, if you balance the brain will they lose some of that…. I guess, if you will, the eccentricity or genius?
Dr. Melillo: Right. If you are look at genius, the way I look at it is there is kind of two types of genius, one type of genius is where we have areas of the brain that are incredibly strong, we have networks in the brain that are really very coherent and this is what we see in many people. But that may be associated with the disability or deficiency on the other side. So, for instance, you have somebody like Isaac Newton who was obviously a brilliant genius but also struggled his whole life with OCD – he never had one personal relationship that anybody was ever made aware of. And he really was considered, kind of, a very odd, unfriendly guy and people didn’t like him. So, if we had balanced his right brain out, he would have been the same genius but he would have had a better social life and people would have liked him better and he might had actually been a better person.
Dr. Melillo: The ultimate genius is then when we have perfect balance and integration of the whole brain, so we can bring the whole brain together simultaneously and use all those areas of the brain, and that actually gives us, I think, the ultimate genius. And I think someone like Leonardo da Vinci was probably the closest to that.
Dr. Melillo: He was a fantastic artist but he also was incredibly good with details, and inventions, and… So, what we see is that Leonardo use to spend his whole life training himself to use both hands equally. So, I think he kind of instinctively knew that, you know, a balanced brain was the key to a true genius. So, that’s the thing is that, what we see in most of the kids that we work with, I say that the reason why they end up with us is because they are actually gifted kids. They have areas of their brains that are naturally stronger, they have stronger connections than most people of their age. But what happens is that if the other side of the brain doesn’t keep up with that in development, it’s more likely to result in an imbalance, and a little bit of an imbalance is okay but too much of an imbalance just actually makes the two sides of the brain incompatible, they can’t share and integrate information. And we have always heard there is a thin line between genius and insanity, and I think that that line is a little bit of an imbalance or too much of an imbalance and I think that is actually the key.
Kelly: Interesting. So, when we talk about children who are just developing, in the the real early years. Can you tell if there is an imbalance really early on like before maybe four years old?
Dr. Melillo: Yeah. The fact is you can tell if they have an imbalance almost from the moment they are born. Many kids we know are born where their immune system is already dysfunctional, many kids with autism, they already seem to have an overactive immune system, they have eczema or sensitivities. What we also know is that many kids are born with low muscle tone, and have difficulty latching on and breastfeeding. But certainly, you can start to see it with their developmental milestones that if a child doesn’t roll over at three to five months, or if they roll over to one side and not the other, if they don’t crawl properly, if they don’t walk on time. These milestones are incredibly important and much narrower than people think. So, what we see is that, you know, a guy named Ami Klin used eye tracking technology to show that you could identify kids with autism to be, at two months of age.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Dr. Melillo: By the difference in their eye contact and whether they focus on the mother’s eyes, or whether they look at her mouth, or whether they don’t look at the mother’s face at all. So, you can see very early on, and you can start to intervene very early on. There is a number of studies that have shown looking at identical twins, and this was both with autism and with schizophrenia. And they showed that when they look at identical twins and they followed them out, and when they develop later on autism or even schizophrenia in their twenties, when they went back and look at their baby videos, they could see at six months of age that even untrained people could identify that the one that ended up with schizophrenia or the one that ended up with autism was already moving differently, and was much more clumsy and awkward. And this has a lot to do with we call primitive reflexes and motor development.
Kelly: That’s really interesting, so you know looking back, I have two children aged two and three, and, you know, my son has some of the right brain weaknesses that you mentioned in your book. He also was late in rolling over, and crawling, and has asthma and eczema. If they have these issues, is that something that, you know, you want to help balance that early on or do they sometimes grow out of these things, or does it turn into other things?
Dr. Melillo: More often than not, if there is an imbalance, it usually gets worse over time it doesn’t get better. Sometimes some more obvious things may go away or may seem to go away. So, like a child may start out with certain food, obvious food sensitivities. And then they may appear to go away because they don’t have any real outward signs, but if we actually test them and look at their immune reaction, they still react to it. So, kids may look like they have dairy sensitivity and then they go off dairy, and then they go back and they don’t seem to have the same level, but the fact is if we test them and do blood test, we can still (see) that the sensitivity is still there. And it only affects their behavior, it doesn’t affect any physical symptoms. So, it really comes down to if there is some sort of developmental milestone imbalance it an imbalance that starts early on, chances are that imbalance tends to build over time. But you are, obviously, more than the typical knowledged mom and you have probably done a lot of great things and so it is possible. But the idea is at least you are alert, you are looking for things and you are paying attention so that if you have any questions you can do something and intervene quickly.
Kelly: Is it more common to have a right brain weakness or a left brain weakness?
Dr. Melillo: You know that’s a question, and I have to say I think it’s pretty even to be honest with you. When we look at things like learning disabilities, they are probably the singular number problem including dyslexia, which is clearly a left brain weakness. And that affects around fifteen to twenty percent of the population. But on the other hand, if we look at ADHD, OCD, Tourrete, and autistic type behaviors, you know, which are clearly right brain delays. ADHD alone makes up about eleven percent of the population of childhood and adolescents. And then if you add the other ones, it’s probably close to fifteen percent as well. Overall, we are looking at about one in five, maybe even one in four kids in the united states have some type of developmental issue, and many experts believe that that’s actually underreported, so, it’s probably even more than that. But it’s probably an even distribution and even in our centers, you know, we see an even distribution. The only thing is that right brain issues tend to be more behavioral, they tend to affect more emotions, they tend to affect attention, and behavior, and outburst, and oppositional. So, they tend to be more noticed earlier and they have more of a disruptive effect on the family. So, families are more likely to act quicker on a right brain delay than they will if a child just has a learning disability that they may not pick up until fourth grade.
Kelly: You had mentioned that it’s not a good thing if they miss a milestone, but sometimes I think might think maybe milestones are often missed because parents are maybe propping their baby up too early or getting them to walk. Does that also impact the imbalance? Or are you talking more of the natural development if they aren’t doing it on their own? Because I feel like these days more and more people are like, you know, let’s walk, before their ready.
Dr. Melillo: I think that it’s partly natural but I think it can be interfered with by parents, I think you are right. The brain develops in layers, right, so, what we know is that it develops in series, not in parallel. Meaning, the right brain forms in the womb and for the first two to three years, and then the left brain, and then the right brain, and then the left brain… And each time the brain gets a little bit different on each side, may become, you know, developed, and that is partly the uniqueness of the human brain. So, it needs to develop in stages and all of those stages and development are designed to help build that layer of the brain appropriately. So, if we skip it or if we miss it, then it really does matter because it affects the foundation of the brain… I just did a lecture at Oxford University and the whole basis of the conference was movement and cognition. And that in the psychiatry, psychology and education world, we now recognize that really motor development is essential and foundational for all cognitive and emotional development.
Dr. Melillo: So that if you don’t have normal motor development, you don’t build the foundation. It’s like not building the foundation in a house and you continue to build the house, you know, the roof is always going to stay cracked because of the foundation. And so, if there is something that affects… So, if the parents don’t allow the children to crawl long enough, or if they don’t crawl or if they suddenly walk, if they walk too early. You know, if they walk earlier than ten months or even earlier than eleven months, or if they walk later than fourteen months, in my assessment, that’s late. So, all of that is very important and I think you are right. Putting then in jumpers, and bouncing and trying to get them to stand up too soon, and not letting them just lay on the ground and do their thing, I think is very important.
Kelly: How does that impact them later on if they are not building the connection? When does that show up?
Dr. Melillo: What we see in the brain is when we actually do research, and we look at it, and measure it. We see that things like ADHD and learning disabilities, what we see in the brain is areas of the brain that look immature, right. They are kind of arrested in their development, they are not damaged, they are not injured, there is no pathology per se, but what we see is certain areas of the brain look more matured and more connected, and literally have physically more and stronger connections while other areas of the brain are underdeveloped and immature. So, what we see is that if we don’t go through those normal stages, it causes this kind of arrested development and leads to what we call a developmental asynchrony. Where the different sides of the brain are developing at different rates and so, it can show up again in the motor milestones but then it can show up at any age in any system, right. So, it may be that you just see immune changes because the brain controls the immune system, the brain controls the digestive system, and the autonomic system, and the heart rate, and the brain as well controls the detoxification. And so, anything that’s affecting the baby and it’s unusual for what they are at for whether they have severe allergies, or they are always getting sick, or maybe it’s that they cry all the time, or they don’t have any eye contact. But you can see it earlier on, and the earlier you see it the better it is to intervene at that point.
Kelly: So, what can you do? I am just thinking again of my son who definitely has a lot of problems with his respiratory, and being sick all the time, and definitely I call my future CEO. I know you have some exercises for right and left brain. What are some tips that you could give to maybe exercise the weak side of the brain?
Dr. Melillo: One of the things I would say is that, you know, every child is different, so, what I would suggest is that in my book “disconnected kids and reconnected kids”. I have a bunch of different assessments that the parent can do, which sounds like you did it with your child, maybe, in my book. And from that in all different areas, looking at, you know not only hemisphere balance but also looking at the development of different systems their motor system, their sensory system, their autonomic and immune system, their cognitive. And so, what I would suggest is a parent can look at that, but if we just give some general guidelines, you know doing sensory stimulation from the opposite side of the body, right. So, using music or sound from the opposite ear or touching or massaging one side of the, you know, the left side of the body is stimulating the right brain, shining light in the left eye primarily. Spinning, to get the inner ear, spinning in one direction or the other can stimulate the opposite side of the brain. Getting them to do different exercises, get them to do all the big muscle exercises is very important for the right brain. So, core exercises, strengthening exercises, for their back, their core, their stomach. You know, actually building muscle tone and strength which gives them a better awareness of their body. Body awareness and spacial awareness is generally a right brain type of thing.
Dr. Melillo: This is also looking at their facial asymmetry is important because if they seem to have a little asymmetry in their face. This tells us that two systems are interrelated and aren’t really developing in a balanced way. One is, the autonomic system the Vagus nerve that regulates the heart and the digestive system really is developing and that also increases muscle tone in the face. But what we also see is that, that also leads to the ability to swallow and chew and vocalize, so it even leads to some feeding issues, swallowing, sense activity, and even taste, and also the ability to speak. But what it also is what we call the social engagement system, the ability to read facial expression on other people, and communicate non-verbally and right hemisphere is what communicates nonverbally. So, most kids with the right hemisphere delays, they end up with more social issues, they are not reading social clues, their left brain generates anger. So, they may have anger outbursts because the right brain isn’t there to correct it or stop it or inhibit it. And they have an overactive immune system so, everything you describe kind of fits in a right brain delay. This can also lead to ticks, it can lead to stems, it can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviors, all of these are overactive left brain and under active right brain. So, activities that can stimulate that I list a whole bunch of them in my book, with even doing things like smell, and music and light, and sound, and the stimuli input, and exercises, all of that is pretty specific for that area.
Kelly: That’s interesting and so, What about the right brain? I also read all these theories on how if you really train your right brain, you can have a photographic memory and speed reading. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Dr. Melillo: Well, the right brain is more holistic so, it’s able to see things all at once whereas the left brain reads sequentially. So, the left brain is really more about reading rows, and reading individual words and lines, and memorizing words and spelling, and vocabulary, and basic math operations and numbers. But the ability to understand what the story is about, the main idea, getting the overall pragmatics. What’s between the lines, the inferences, that’s all what the right brain does with reading. So, I think that some aspects of memory, you know we find that typically kids with right brain delays and left brain strength tend to have the eidetic memory. That memory like where they just can remember every fact and detail, and figures, you know that calendar kind of counting type of thing that you see in autistics or autistic savants. Whereas, you know, the right brain learns more about what we call the implicit memory, subconsciously. So, we learn things with the right brain but we don’t really recall it consciously so much, the right brain is more about remembering experiences of a situation or what happened or the feelings or the emotions around certain but it doesn’t really have a time line. The left brain remembers the timeline and all of the details. And normally both sides of the brain integrate perfectly to create a perfect memory.
Kelly: So, one of the questions I had was in terms of when you kind of intervene, if you will, on correcting a right brain, left brain weakness. I know you can do that anytime in your life. But it is easier to sort of retrain the brain when you are much younger versus when you are growing older?
Dr. Melillo: Yeah! That’s a great question and when we look at neuroplasticity which is really the principle of changing the brain, right! Which basically says that through training, and stimulation, and activation, we can change the brain physically and chemically. And that is really the basis of learning, right. Whenever we learn we are changing the brain. We know that if you learn something new, if I taught you something here today, what happens is within one hour, we could measure changes in your matter. We could literally physically see changes in your brain. And we know that neuroplasticity is a product of a couple of things. One is, the younger we are the more plastic our brain is, but it’s also a product of engagement and motivation. So, the more engaged in the activity you are, the more motivated you are in the activity, the faster neuroplasticity will happen. So, what we find is that, in the little babies and kids, obviously, it’s harder to get them engaged or motivated to do activities. And it can add to a lot of stress because they are going through different like strains of anxiety. So, it’s better to wait until they are a little older, and they can actually enjoy coming to our centers and really engage in the process and really do a lot more strenuous intense activities, and then we can make changes equally as quick.
Dr. Melillo: And so, I have seen teenagers or even older kids that they are so motivated to become more social or have more friends. That we have seen huge dramatic changes because of their motivation level. So, truly the product of all of that so, that’s true even at any age, so, if at any age you are really motivated to learn something, you can learn it as fast as just about anybody. If you really focus on it and you really focus on it and you really do it intensely.
Kelly: If you had one thing you would want a parent or a family of a young child to know about the developing brain, what would it be?
Dr. Melillo: That movement is the key to brain development early on. That moving our body and interpersonal relationship are the two most important things to build intelligence. People think that sitting on a computer, doing, you know sedimentary activities where we are doing flashcards or playing video games are actually gonna build intelligence, they don’t! It’s the exact opposite. Baby Einstein videos have been shown to make kids dumber. Movement, and moving, and engaging our senses, especially in the first six years of life when the foundation of the two sides of the brain is being formed is so critical. And the biggest mistake right now is that it drives me crazy, everywhere I go I see babies, infants, one year olds, two year olds, with a phone or computer shelved in front of them, and the parents literally do it. Where they are seeing them, the kid will be sitting there and they will be perfectly happy and they will be day dreaming. And the parent may go here, here is your phone, here is your phone, here is your phone. You know it’s like what are you doing, leave them alone, let them be bored, let them use their imagination. You know, we have our own entertainment system in our brain called an imagination that kicks in but it only kicks in when we are bored, right.
Dr. Melillo: It really I think it’s very, very upsetting and I think that if parents have one thing, I think parents now are gonna struggle with is the use of technology. And I think it’s totally out of control and I think most parents know that. And I think parents should go with their instincts more and really understand, and not look around and see what other people are doing and you know, go with peer pressure. This is your child, this is your child’s life. What happens in their first six years of life is going to affect them for the rest of their life. As you said earlier, from zero to three the brain grows to ninety percent of the adult size. So, especially in the first three years, keep kids away from technology completely because it will literally reshape their brain, it will kick the left brain on too early, especially playing video games. If they play video games too early, it engages the left brain and it will cause severe imbalances and can literally even; even with extensive use, you know people are calling it digital heroine because it literally…
Kelly: Yeah, it’s an addiction.
Dr. Melillo: It literally changes the reward areas of the brain the way that heroine or crack does. So, and it mainly affects the left side of the brain, the same area of the brain and the same networks that are associated with obsessive, compulsive, addictive behaviors. And kids that are naturally left brain dominant, all they wanna do is play video games and if you give it to them, you are just feeding an addict. So, that is probably the number one thing I will tell parents, be very, very careful and judicious. Studies have shown that between a hour to two hours of all types of screen use, meaning; TV, computer, social media, has some cognitive benefit but anything more than that, the brain crashes, there is like a sharp decline, and it actually decreases cognitive activity. And I would say that even that should be really limited before they age of six. The American Academy of Pediatrics use to say that now they have caved in themselves. But you know, parents just need to really be aware, get your kids outside, let them climb trees and ride bikes, and interact with the world around them, and interact with other people, and that’s actually going to make them smarter. That’s more likely to get them to an Ivy League school I believe than anything else.
Kelly: Yeah, I agree. That is such an issue I see everywhere and I think it’s an important message to get across. Thank you so much for coming on the show, I am really honored to have you here and share all your wealth of knowledge.
Dr. Melillo: Great! There is a couple of things that I could just mention to people, if they wanna know more, obviously, they can go to brainbalancecenters.com, they could also go to my website, drrobertmelilo.com. My wife and I actually have a new web series called disconnected kids reconnecting families, which is going to be coming out in mid to end September. So, people should look out for that and I also just developed special vitamins for kids with developmental issues or for all kids with brain development called Kid Genius vitamins. They are available on Amazon if people wanna check them out.
Dr. Melillo: Thank you. My pleasure.
About Dr. Robert J. Melillo
One of the most respected specialists in childhood neurological disorders in America, Dr. Robert Melillo has been helping children overcome learning disabilities for over 20 years. His areas of expertise include: autism spectrum disorders, PDD/NOS, ADD/ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, bipolar disorder, and other mental, attention, behavioral and learning disorders. He is also an expert in diet, nutrition and neuroimmune disorders in children and adults.
As a clinician for 25 years, a university professor, brain researcher, best selling author, radio and TV host, his cutting-edge research and success with over a thousand children in his private program are what led to the creation of Brain Balance Achievement Centers. Brain Balance Centers are cutting edge supplemental learning centers catering only to children with various learning disabilities. Brain Balance Centers use a multi-modal, hemispheric curriculum focused on addressing the primary issue in most learning disabilities and behavioral disorders which is known as a functional disconnection. Since he introduced this concept, functional disconnection has become one of the leading theories in the world related to Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and more. This work is leading the way toward understanding the underlying nature of these disorders and their causes. For more information visit, www.drmelillo.com.