In two earlier blogs (last August 3rd, 5th), I briefly discussed some aspects of the neuroscience of “reactive attachment disorders” (RADs). That evoked an informative series of comments from individuals whose families or friends had struggled with this problem. One comment, by “Teletype”, indicated that I did not have an accurate view of the Self. “You don’t provide an explanation of what could account for people’s differences — differences in responses, opinions, emotions, likes/dislikes, behavior, things said and not said, extent of non-verbal communication and quality of it, etc. THIS is the self, not the other things.”
To which I respond, “Balderdash!”
But before explaining why, let me re-state how I described the development of a baby “Self” that is attached to a parent — or vice versa — from the earlier blog:
Within the womb, especially in the third trimester when the fetus makes us very aware of its presence, it literally becomes a part of the Self that is its mother. Through millions of neurologically constructed (wired!) associations, the baby and mother are, in mom’s brain, an integrated entity. Is it hardly surprising, then, that in the natural course of things most mothers are almost super-naturally attached to their new-born infants. This attachment is further nurtured and elaborated through the mother’s close physical and emotional attachment ot the infant post-natally. That infant is a regular, constant, emotionally important part of the mother’s (father’s, grandparent’s, sibling’s) life on a level at which it is literally encorporated into THEIR Selves. A mother or close and constant caregiver is LITERALLY bonded — attached — to the Person who loves them, in neurological as well as emotional terms.
In the normal case, the same kind of attachment is also growing in the backward direction, from the mother to the infant. In this case, attachment is less cerebral. The infant receives warmth, nourishment, and many other rewards from his or her mother. The mother is a source of food, safety, comfort, and countless little pleasures. The baby quickly understands that their mother (or other continous care-giver) provides a safe base of operations for exploration and adventure. One of the most non-intuitive discoveries in the study of infant-child bonding is that the most secure infants have (on the statistical average) the greatest curiosity and the strongest explorative and inventive instincts. It has been argued that this occurs because such a child is operating from the very secure base and reliability for having its primary needs met by its mother.
If emotional responses were merely delivered to us via a handoff from Mother Nature or the Creator of the Universe as Teletype suggests, then why does infant deprivation matter so damn much. Why is the PERSON the young child is, so distorted in their “responses, opinions, emotional responses, likes and dislikes…, things that they say and don’t say?” Or to put it another way, where in heavens do you think our responses, opinions, emotional responses, all of our likes and dislikes beyond the primitive, most aspects of our specific behaviors, and things that we say and don’t say COME from, Teletype?! Out of the thin air?! THEY GROW WITHIN US, THROUGH BRAIN PLASTICITY, Teletype. Collectively, they ARE us.
Our plastic brain creates a model of the external world AND of itSELF from its passage through life — from its experiences — by physically remodeling its detailed connections, i.e., BY BRAIN PLASTICITY.
That is certainly also the case in a child that develops a RAD. Because it’s world is so impoverished and distorted, it has to create a model of both the world and itSelf under very difficult conditions. It is little wonder that it just can’t get it right! From this neuroscience perspective, what IS missing for such a child in the experiences that drive plastic changes and shape the operations of the Self, in the domain of emotional response and control as it relates to human attachment?
Such a child has been impoverished in behaviors that have consequences in their early histories. Almost nothing that almost-continuously-neglected child did in early childhood mattered. Their little brains were starved for those many thousands of moments in normal infants for which their actions lead to an appropriate, timely, caregiver-delivered responses. Needs WEREN’T responded to, WEREN’T met.
Beyond that deprivation, the limited care provided in a socially impoverished environment can be interpreted by the brain as punishing. Infant rashes and dirty diapers and hunger are, from the brain’s perspective, BAD outcomes, ultimately associated with absent and neglectful and resented adult care-givers. In such a scenario, in the child’s brain:
1) the brain machinery that reliably relates the child’s actions to predictable, timely, positive external-agent-delivered consequences is very poorly developed;
2) the processes that normally massively associate positive-attachment-related behaviors that establish the crucial two-way linkage of the child’s and parent’s SELF-creation are grossly stunted.
3) care-giving adults predict bad outcomes.
Consider another example. A child is raised in a family a) in which there is little talking (just as in the orphanage). In that family, b) most verbal interactions between adults and that child are approbations (probably ALSO common in some orphanage environments), and are c) commonly accompanied by physical abuse, and by d) neglect.
This is (alas) an altogether far too common an American scenario. When such a child goes to school, they enter an environment that is full of happy talkers. Not so, with high likelihood, our neglected, language- and socially-impoverished child. They REJECT talking and socializing (school). They can come to resent and rebel against their good-hearted classroom teacher — for the same kinds of reasons that those RAD kids can reject loving care-givers. If they chronically misbehave (have a “behavior disorder) and fail in school from the outset, their prospects for later imprisonment are far higher than their prospects for later emotional and financial and social prosperity.
Our challenge is to help all these children in need build the fundamental neurological foundations that associate their actions with positive consequences expressed by the actions of the adults that “rule” their lives — caregivers, teachers, grandparents, therapists, etc. — and by their peers. I have been thinking a lot about how to use a technological approach to assist a responsible care-giver or teacher or therapist in providing a intensive brain-training boost to help build and sustaining these fundamental skills in these entirely innocent young children. More about that subject, in a later blog.