Why would the healthy development of at least seven of the nine functions of the middle prefrontal cortex also be outcomes of a secure parent-child attachment? Because, as we learned from Siegel, the mind is an “embodied and relational process of regulating the flow of energy and information,” which means that our relationships are an integral part of the way our mind moves energy and information in our brain, and the specific ways in which energy and information move in our brain influence the way our brain develops and functions. Thus, starting at birth, our relationships have a profound influence on the sculpting and functioning of our brain.
The way it works is this: The mind regulates energy and information flow within ourselves and shares it with others through our neural circuitry, which is constantly responding to people we encounter as theirs is responding to us. The pathways along which this energy and information flows become embedded in our brains.
Babies and young children need others for survival: They are dependent on their parents and other caregivers and are naturally open in sharing energy and information with them. Since the flow of energy and information along a baby’s and a young child’s neural network is creating neural pathways, the security or lack of security of the relationship between parent and child—in other words, the security or lack of security of a parent-child attachment—impacts the formation of the neural pathways that become embedded in their young brain. This includes the neural pathways in the middle prefrontal cortex, of course, which affect at least seven of the nine executive functions. This is the process by which “early experience shapes the structure and the function of the brain.”
When relationships between parent and child are “attuned,” a child feels it and experiences a sense of stability in the present moment. During that here-and-now interaction, the child feels good, connected, and loved. The child’s internal world is seen with clarity by the parent, and the parent comes to resonate with the child’s state. This is attunement.
Over time, this attuned communication enables the child to develop the regulatory circuits in the brain—including the integrative prefrontal fibers—that give the child a source of resilience as he or she grows. This resilience, which comes from “secure attachment,” includes the capacity for self-regulation and engaging with others in empathetic relationships. As I’ve discussed, the others of the first seven executive functions have been demonstrated to be outcomes of secure attachment as well.
I gained further clarity about the ways that early experiences shape our brains from a New York Times article by naturalist Diane Ackerman. In it she reports that brain scans have allowed scientists to observe a synchronicity between the brains of a mother and child, and that advances in neuroimaging have shown that an infant’s first attachments actually imprint the brain.
According to Ackerman, there is scientific evidence of the importance of loving touch, one of the fundamental elements of a secure parent-child attachment. She explains that we can see its beneficial effects through an experiment in which adults in a loving relationship were given an electrical shock that produced pain. It had a lower neural reaction in their brains when they were holding a loving partner’s hand than when they were not holding it. Researchers did not find this response in people holding a partner’s hand if the relationship between the partners was unharmonious. Ackerman also reports that holding a loving partner’s hand can lower blood pressure, improve health, soothe physical pain, and ease reaction to stress.
The effects of rejection on the brain are dramatic in the opposite way. Neuroimaging studies show that “the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels socially rejected,” Ackerman says. “That’s why being spurned by a lover hurts all over the body, but in no place you can point to. Or rather, you’d need to point to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain . . . the bundle of nerve fibers zinging messages between the hemispheres that register both rejection and physical assault.”
Comparing how a loving touch affects the brain with how rejection affects it, we get a deeper understanding of the ways in which a parent’s attunement to a baby and the security or lack of security of the parent-child attachment imprints a baby’s brain, thereby affecting at least seven of the nine executive functions that are crucial to our sense of well-being and our having harmonious relationships. As Ackerman puts it, the imprinting from an infant’s first attachments begins patterns of thinking, behavior, self-image, and choices about intimate relationships that carry through into adulthood.
These findings needn’t discourage you, however. As you know from our discussion about the brain’s malleability, neuroscientist Richard Davidson is right to emphasize that the emotional style from childhood that takes us into our lives as adults “doesn’t need to be the one that describes us forever.” If you didn’t have a secure parent-child relationship growing up and you’d like to increase your ability with one or more of the seven executive functions that are affected by the nature of the parenting you experienced, you can accomplish this by remodeling your brain.
An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon.
- 11 Dec, 2014
- Posted by Steve Fogel
- 0 Comments