In their words: Dr MA Greenstein & Be brave (inspired after seeing the film Brave)

Courage. Check. Honour. Check. Fear. Check.

We all face fear, test courage and realise bravery as a matter of course. Challenged by peers, pushed to the brink by the endless assaults of life, we search within ourselves to find the mettle necessary to match the moment we are called to action. As ancient wisdom goes, ‘fear we run from chases us; fear we chase runs from us!’

Children are no strangers to the fear-courage continuum. Just ask Merida, the lead in Brave, Pixar/Disney’s sassy and latest cinematic offering. Capitalising on smart and capable as features for their lead female protagonist, Pixar/Disney animators present Merida as a vivacious, pre-teen Scottish princess who resists the patriarchal conventions of her mythic royal times.

A self-made master archer with stunning visual spatial acuity (worthy of FMRI study!), Merida, daughter of Queen Elinor and King Fergie, bucks centuries of tribal convention and her queen mother’s endless warnings when faced with the prospect of marriage to – ugh – dolts no less!

Recognising a social straight jacket when she sees one, in this case a constricting medieval dress, our little feminist tween resists Queen mummie and mocks legend and ancestry. With youthful pride spinning out of proportion, Merida defiantly tests fate and destiny with an urgent need to self determine and claim inner happiness!

As the film scriptwriters are well aware, modern women, young and old, are no strangers to the story of Merida’s plight. With European royals still in our midst, recent history is chock-full of details regarding modern monarchs who reject their heir to throne in the name of true love. Think British Monarchy King Edward VIII.

Like King Edward, Merida senses her fate extends beyond the limits of royal life. Unlike Eddie, she’s unbridled, self-possessed and young enough to throw caution totally to the wind. A PG-13 response to the neuroscience of inhibitory control?

Royal or not, we each grow up with pressing social moral and ritual conventions, asking the question: Must we sacrifice our identity, our basic happiness or those we love in order to find our true and ever emergent selves?

Perhaps one of the most predictable yet potent neuro-psychoanalytic motifs of the story is the mother-daughter struggle between primal bond and social power. Who can blame Queen Elinor, the psychological container and role model for a marriage tradition that had gone unquestioned – until her playful, fierce Merida? Who can fault Merida for failing to recognise her deep genetic and moral interdependence with family, ancestry and history? 

In Brave, neuro-psychoanalysis cashes in on fairytale and it is against a medieval backdrop that Merida turns to magical thinking to problem-solve. With the help of a forest witch, Merida casts a transformation spell on Queen mummy turning her into a bear (with booty!) – the very animal bound by destiny and fate to King Fergie in his oath to hunt and kill in revenge for once chomping off his left leg!

Are you getting the drift? Determinism – biological, historical, ancestral, preternatural embroiders this tale with a sense of close-minded doom.

As modern psychotherapeutic literature attests, magical thinking comes in handy when we’re furious, paralysed and feel out of control. Yet square that literature with recent social cognitive neuroscience research and we see a developing new picture of social and emotional learning. Helping children (and adults) take a moment to catch a breath, feel and name sensations can surely determine our destiny as much as any ole spell.

Brave, then, is a 21st century allegory of enlightenment, courage, and embodiment riffing on mindfulness. Merida and Mom are both tested, revealing the sacred, primal, oxytocin bond of mother and child. Merida must sacrifice her youthful arrogance and recklessness in order to practice self-reflection and save her mother from spell damnation; Elinor puts her life on line by daring to take on the big, bad, black bear frothing at the mouth as he pounces on her girl child – the very big, bad, black bear fated to destroy King Fergie.

This is transformational cinema at work. Big Myth. Brain Smart. Mind Awake … with mouth-watering computer animation graphics to boot!

Dr MA Greenstein is a thought leader and innovator in applied neuroscience; publisher and curriculum designer for brain/mind/body awareness and spatial intelligence platforms; Founder and chief Brainiac, GGI, USA.

Dr Greenstein is presenting at Mind & Its Potential in October. Her session is Whole brain learning for the whole brain child: why growing spatial intelligence matters. She’s also leading the post-conference workshop Bodies in space explore! Tapping spatial memory to be happy, healthy and smart.


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  • Fiona Fenton

    I am 50 and yet was recently drawn to buying a picture book of Brave, thinking perhaps my 12 year old daughter would enjoy it as she has been experiencing some mental health issues. Too babyish for her, she informed me and so I decided to keep it and read it myself. It got me thinking about my role as a mother and what I mean to my kids as they become older. It also made me think of rekindling my relationship with my mother that has become so taken for granted over the years of busily raising my own children. I rang and talked to her with fresh mindfulness and will observe if or how our relationship evolves.


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