Neglectful nurture bad news for youth
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