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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

How do early relationships shape our brains?

As infants, we develop best in an environment of love and fun.

THREE CORE IDEAS lie at the centre of psychoanalytic thought.

The first is that, as infants, we develop best in an environment of love and fun. Second that our internal worlds are formed in early childhood and have an enduring influence on our relationships throughout our lives. And third, that much of the suffering in this world can be traced to neglect and abuse in childhood.

Psychoanalysts since Freud have passionately believed that these ideas have the power to change our lives and reshape our world.

Now neuroscience and biochemistry are showing that, on these key ideas at least, Freud was right.

The science of love

Over the last few decades, neuroscientists have proven beyond doubt that the development of a baby’s brain depends critically on the quality of the physical and emotional care it receives. The quality of these relationships decisively influences both the biochemistry and the structure of the brain.

As psychotherapist and author Sue Gerhardt explains, babies come into the world with a need for social interaction to develop and organise their brains. If they do not get enough empathic, attuned attention, then important parts of their brains simply do not develop as well as they should.

And the consequences of poor brain development in infancy can be severe. They can include a reduced capacity for empathy and love, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and in some cases, the development of personality disorders marked by a higher propensity for violence and greed.

1. We develop best in the context of love and fun

So how do early relationships shape our brain?

One region of the brain that plays a key role in emotional life is the orbitofrontal cortex. This is situated at the front of the brain just above our eye sockets. Our capacity to empathise and to engage in emotional communication with other people requires a developed orbitofrontal cortex. People with brain damage in this region cannot relate sensitively towards others.

Crucially, scientists now know that the orbitofrontal cortex develops almost entirely after birth.

What is more, the orbitofrontal cortex does not develop solely according to a predetermined genetic blueprint. Instead the way in which it develops, and the neural connections which are made within it, and between it and other parts of the brain, depend critically on caring relationships in early childhood.

Pleasurable interactions – whether a loving gaze, shared laughter, or a warm embrace – arouse the baby’s nervous system and heart rate, triggering a biochemical response. In this way love and fun release the biochemicals that both help the brain to grow and help create the neural connections vital for effective brain functioning.

The absence of such emotional stimulation deprives the child of the brain chemicals needed for normal brain growth. In babies who have been subject to early emotional or physical abuse, the orbitofrontal cortex has indeed been found to be significantly smaller in volume.

A massive burst of synaptic connections

The volume of the frontal part of the brain, however, is not the only thing that matters. How well the neurons are connected up within the pre-frontal cortex is also crucial, particularly the connections that are formed between the left and right sides of the baby’s brain.

Between six and twelve months after birth, a massive burst of synaptic connections occurs, connecting up the right and left hemispheres.

The left and right hemispheres have different modes of operation. The left carries out specialised functions related to logic and verbal processing; the right is specialised in some functions related to emotion.

The interconnections formed between the two parts of the brain in infancy mean that our adult mind is able to draw on the resources of the left brain to regulate feelings. Similarly the logical cognitive processes of the left brain can be informed by emotional reality.

In the absence of love and play in our early years, however, the left and right brain will not be as well connected, resulting, once again, in adverse consequences for our emotional and mental health.

2. Our internal worlds are formed in early childhood and have an enduring influence on our relationships throughout our lives.

‘Object relations’ is an influential school of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts of this school have long argued that our internal worlds are fragmented and are comprised of multiple ‘internal objects’ that determine how we relate to ourselves and others.

The term ‘internal object’ essentially means a mental and emotional image of another person, or part of another person (such as a smiling face), that has been taken inside the self. Our most important internal objects are those derived from our parents in our early childhood.

According to object relations theory, when we interact with other people, these internal objects are activated. Whether our internal world is dominated by images of fear and danger, or images of love and care, our internal objects strongly influence our relationships throughout our lives.

Amazingly, over the last few decades neuroscientists have been discovering evidence that supports object relations theory.

We have seen how the early development of an infant’s brain involves an explosion of synaptic connections which link together different parts of the brain. Initially these connections are made in a chaotic fashion, creating a dense network of possible connections.

Then, as a result of the infant’s experiences, particular connections begin to solidify. Out of the chaotic overproduction of connections, patterns start to emerge. The baby’s most frequent and repetitive experiences result in well-trodden neural pathways, while those neural connections which lie unused begin to fade away. In this way, the baby’s most typical experiences shape the connections within its brain.

As the brain develops further, images and words accumulate within these neural networks.

Dense webs of interconnections

Between 12 and 18 months of age, when the baby begins to develop a capacity for storing images, an inner library of pictures begins to be built up. Both positive and negative images and interactions are remembered and stored.

Then during the second year, as the child’s verbal ability develops rapidly, words start to play as big a role as physical and visual communication. Words too, saturated with emotion, are stored as part of the child’s neural connections.

When activated through interactions with others, these dense webs of interconnections conjure up rich associations of images, words and emotions, and provide the infant with a practical guide to action.

And as psychoanalysts have long held, these neural networks – or ‘internal objects’ – continue to underpin our behaviour and our expectations of others throughout our lives, most often without our ever realising it.

3. Much of the suffering in this world can be traced to neglect and abuse in childhood.

Neuroscience has shown conclusively that the absence of loving relationships in infancy can result in a smaller brain volume and a paucity of neural connections within the brain.

Neuroscientists have also shown that the patterns of behaviour we experience in early childhood become hard wired into our brains and influence how we relate to others throughout our lives.

The consequences of poor brain development and adverse childhood experiences can last a lifetime. They can include a lack of empathy, rigidity in beliefs and behaviours, difficulties in relating to others, and the development of a host of disorders of personality.

Which brings us to psychoanalysis’ third core idea, namely that much of the suffering in this world can be traced to neglect and abuse in childhood.

Four disorders of personality are now known to predispose an individual to violent or excessively selfish behaviour. These disorders are psychopathy, anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder.

While the precise cause of these disorders is still disputed, it is highly likely that physically or emotionally abusive relationships in infancy and childhood contribute to their development.

Of course, not every child who experiences neglect and abuse will develop a dangerous personality disorder. The resilience of the human spirit sees to that.

But a minority do. And that minority is responsible for most of the violence and excessive greed in our world.

The cure is deceptively simple

According to leading expert Robert Hare, half of all serious crime is committed by psychopaths. Narcissistic bosses can cause untold suffering by damaging the mental health of their employees and undermining the effectiveness of their organisations. And paranoid individuals often play destructive roles in politics by conjuring up imaginary enemies and channelling hatred towards vulnerable scapegoats.

The dangerous consequences of childhood neglect and abuse multiply further when it comes to individuals who develop multiple personality disorders. History’s most notorious mass murderers, including Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, all exhibited the classic symptoms of psychopathy, narcissistic personality and paranoid personality disorder to varying degrees.

In a very real sense, our world is shaped by damaged infantile minds.

Almost a century ago Freud warned us that every civilised society is perpetually menaced with disintegration because of the hostility of men towards one another. It is a warning that still holds true today.

Mercifully, Freud also began a process of discovery that has led us to a cure for mankind’s barbarity. That cure is deceptively simple – make sure every child grows up in an environment of love and fun.

Ian Hughes is an author and blogger. You can find his blog at disorderedworld.comand follow him on Twitter @disorderedworld 

[Sources and further reading: Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, A.N. Schore / Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain, Sue Gerhardt / Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, Robert D. Hare / Narcissism: Behind the Mask, David Thomas / Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.]

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