Ne­glect­ful nur­ture bad news for youth

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - OPINION - PETER WOODS

OFT-CRIT­I­CISED past Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Ge­orge HW Bush fa­cil­i­tated some of the most sig­nif­i­cant hu­man re­search projects when on July 17 1990 he in­au­gu­rated “The decade of the brain”.

Bush began the procla­ma­tion by say­ing, “The hu­man brain, a three-pound (1.5kg) mass of in­ter­wo­ven nerve cells that con­trols our ac­tiv­ity, is one of the most mag­nif­i­cent – and mys­te­ri­ous – won­ders of cre­ation. The seat of hu­man in­tel­li­gence, in­ter­preter of senses, and con­troller of move­ment, this in­cred­i­ble or­gan con­tin­ues to in­trigue sci­en­tists and lay­man alike . . .”

Bush tasked in­sti­tu­tions, foun­da­tions and uni­ver­si­ties to ex­plore brain sci­ence.

The learn­ings from this fo­cused and well-funded re­search have changed our un­der­stand­ing of the brain and hu­man be­hav­iour in many ways.

Just one area is the old na­ture/nur­ture de­bate. For the long­est time neu­rol­o­gists and so­cial sci­en­tists de­bated which is more in­flu­en­tial in a child’s de­vel­op­ment: our pre­dis­posed ge­net­ics – na­ture, or the child’s en­vi­ron­ment af­ter birth – nur­ture?

We now know that the hu­man brain is only at 25% of its de­vel­op­ment at birth. This is an evo­lu­tion­ary trade­off. When we began walk­ing on two legs our pelvises shrank to make up­right stance pos­si­ble. Be­ing bipedal meant we could de­velop hands, which in turn al­lowed for hunt­ing and bet­ter food sup­ply. Eat­ing more pro­tein grew the brain in size and func­tion. So hu­man ba­bies have to be born with in­com­pletely grown brains oth­er­wise they wouldn’t be able to get out of the nar­rowed pelvic struc­tures.

This means that 75% of a child’s brain de­vel­op­ment hap­pens out­side the womb and in the con­text of fa­mil­ial and so­ci­etal in­flu­ences. Re­search has shown how the hor­mones oxy­tocin in moth­ers, and dopamine in chil­dren, cre­ate de­pen­dent at­tach­ments es­sen­tial for nur­tur­ing help­less new­borns through years of de­vel­op­ment.

One com­men­ta­tor has writ­ten, “Twenty seven years af­ter the Amer­i­can ‘Decade of the Brain’, it has be­come in­creas­ingly clear that the hu­man brain is par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to so­cial stim­uli. New re­search has re­vealed that so­cial stim­uli (such as par­ent­ing style and early-life stress) can mod­ify the ex­pres­sion of genes that in­flu­ence brain struc­ture and func­tion, in­clud­ing the sen­si­tiv­ity of an in­di­vid­ual to stress­ful stim­uli.”

To­day’s par­ents who are eco­nom­i­cally se­cure are more in­formed and em­pow­ered for the task of child-rear­ing than hu­mans have ever been. Sadly in ar­eas where poverty, sub­stance abuse and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence dom­i­nate, the knowl­edge we have gained pre­dicts de­press­ing out­comes for chil­dren grow­ing up in these neg­a­tive con­texts.

Neu­ro­log­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble to ad­dic­tions, par­tic­u­larly drugs and al­co­hol, these poor chil­dren do not stand a chance of a psy­cho­log­i­cally ful­filled and func­tional life. De­prived of hu­man nur­ture, ad­dic­tive sub­stances be­come the sub­sti­tute.

ý Woods is a pas­toral ther­a­pist

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.