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Building Better Baby Brains
on January 27, 2005
Everything we do or say or learn is mediated by the wrinkled and gelatinous matter inside our skulls. As children grow up, their brains obviously change; not only do the neurons get charged with all the information the children acquire, but the brains physically change as well. It should be no surprise that children who have physical problems in upbringing, like, say, a bad diet, have brains that don't properly grow. It is also no surprise that children who are brought up in emotionally distressing situations have trouble getting along with others into adulthood. It was a surprise to find out, however, that children who are brought up under stress actually have brains that are physically different, and operate differently, from those who are well cared for. In the ambitiously-titled _Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain_ (Brunner-Routledge), Sue Gerhardt has summarized current findings in neuroscience about the developing brains of infants and how that development is influenced by the infants' early attachment experiences. Her work will be tough in parts for those unfamiliar with the neurological territory, but she presents many appealing examples, illustrations, and case studies, so that anyone might enjoy here learning about the inchoate findings of the links between attachment experiences and brain development.
The idea that experiences change brains physically, beyond the mere instillation of learning, is fully accepted. Gerhardt concentrates on the orbitofrontal cortex and on the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone which is required for development of the cortex and other brain regions, but which causes such development to be thwarted if the levels are too high. Babies who are stressed, who do not get proper attention and do not have confidence in being cared for, are likely to have high cortisol levels with resultant malformation of the orbitofrontal cortex. Early experience and patterns of attachment do change brain chemistry and structure in ways that cannot be changed back after a circumscribed period of development. It used to be that studying how babies would respond to their caregivers could only be done by sitting behind a two-way mirror and doing limited, uncruel experiments and watching the behavioral results. It could be observed, for instance, that an inconsistent parent could tend to produce an anxious child. This is the sort of "soft" science that is a target for being woolly-headed liberal supposition, but it can now begin to be supplemented with the hard facts of neuroscience.
How we are treated as babies influences how our brains develop and determines how we get along with others. As Gerhardt says, this is one of the strange things about research in this field: "After developing ingenious experiments and rigorous controls, the fruits of its labours tend to be blindingly obvious." It is, however, important that we now are getting a scientific basis to show that what is self-evident actually can be shown by evidence. The evidence compellingly argues for a responsive style of care, continuously available, as the best environment for a baby, and Gerhardt's own work as a psychotherapist has taken on cases of parents and babies who need assistance in arranging such an environment. Her case illustrations are excellent and readable, and the simple lesson, now backed by hard science, that babies need and deserve responsive care for proper emotional development, cannot be overstressed.