THE BRAIN IS 90 per cent developed by the age of three years old. By the age of three our default mechanisms have been established, and these are the ones we revert to in times of crisis, stress – and the ones that influence our choice of partner.
We know that social and environmental factors have a far greater influence than biological factors do. It is our earliest relationships, the ones with our parents and care givers, that form us as human beings – that shape the people we become. Moreover it is our memories and perceptions of these relationships that alter and influence our desires and sense of self.
Advances in neuro-imaging on brain scans show us that our first attachments as infants imprint on the brain. These same scans prove a synchrony between the brain of a mother and infant, and how this first attachment relationship is experienced maps the pattern for a lifetime of behaviours and urges for each of us.
Infants are born with an intense need to develop a strong passion and love towards the mother, they possess an innate capacity and need to love and be loved. This positive early attachment is ideally with the mother and then the father in those first 12 months of life; however where this cannot happen a positive relationship and attachment with another caregiver can suffice to give a child enough!
One of our most basic needs from infancy is to relate as a whole person to a whole person. We’ve all seen the documentaries of how denial of this basic need to children in orphanages and institutions has culminated in stunted development and growth, both emotionally and physically, in those children. As infants we learn how to trust in a physical way – through touch, skin-to-skin touch – and in terms of attachment theory where trust has not been enabled rage will develop in its place.
We have become a touch-phobic society where people have become afraid to touch each other, where touch has become a litigious consideration. Research shows that societies where touch is encouraged and common place, France for example, have a far lower rate of violence than societies where touch is discouraged such as USA. People will crave touch and while physical violence is loaded with aggression and a desire to inflict pain, it is also a form of touch.
Of course our brain chemistry continues to evolve and alter as we grow and experience a diversity of human relationships, from friendships to intimate connections from our journey of the child of a parent to the parent of a child. However our brains have the mnemic trace of that mother-infant relationship etched on them, and we will be driven to find this same experience of being viewed, held, considered and loved in our adult relationships… for better or for worse!
In healthy adult relationships, something as simple as holding your partners hand or being held by them in times of crisis has been shown to significantly decrease the level of stress we experience (in terms of tracking our neural responses). A healthy, safe and secure adult relationship thereby alters our very physiology.
Huge advances are being made in the area of neuro-psychiatry with people like Dan Siegal and Alan Schore highlighting that while care-giving, especially maternal care-giving, will not change genes, it is very evident that it does influence how those genes are expressed by the developing child, and these patterns resonate in the choices we make in adulthood and choosing a life partner.
Their research shows that a loving and supportive relationship alters the brain significantly. Add to this that our earliest relationships with our attachment figures, mostly that between a mother and infant, decide what kind of relationships we will seek as adults – ergo the mother-infant relationship is the single biggest influence in who we become and how we behave, live and love as adults. Of course this does not mean that we consciously seek out partners with mother-like qualities. It is the mnemic traces of this mother-infant relationship that unconsciously motivate us to find its equivalent in our intimate life relationships.
The phrase “Love hurts” is more than a social commentary. Further neuro-scientific research shows that the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by physical pain are also activated by emotional pain caused by such factors as rejection. If our first relationship has been one associated with emotional pain it will serve as the bruise we know hurts – but we keep touching to make sure it still hurts. In other words, we will seek to repeat the pattern of this first relationship positive or negative.
However, our default mechanisms can be changed and altered. Attachment wounds can be healed and we can change these patterns we have been thus far compelled to repeat. By bringing these early relationships into consciousness we can process them, integrate the learning and ultimately move on and develop new patterns.
By going back and experiencing communication and connection in a more positive way emphasising humour, playfulness, tone, warm facial expressions, affection – in other words aspects of a positive mother-infant relationship – we can rewire the brain to expect something different, something better for ourselves in our relationships!
Positive change is always possible and it is never too late to achieve this.
Joanna Fortune is a clinical Psychotherapist and Founder/Director of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Sandyford, Dublin 18. More information is available at solamh.com, or on Twitter at @solamh.