All posts tagged neuroscience

Foundations of narcissism in infancy

Stress-reactive people are often what outsiders perceive as egocentric, paranoid, volatile, and often become violent in response to perceived threats. Being stress-reactive means you have a low tolerance for threat; and perceived threats will trigger irrational actions and can even destroy health and accelerate aging. (Robert Sapolsky summarizes this research in his bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) In the face of a perceived threat, a stress-reactive individual’s compassion and empathy fly out the window, and self-preservation mode takes over. We often refer to those who default to this mode as being narcissists.

A fantastic article on Psychology Today talks about how stress-reactivity in adults can tear apart society, and it’s foundations form in infancy. One popular method that undermines healthy reactions to stress are methods that encourage parents to not respond to a child’s distress:

[When babies are left to cry, with no parental attempt at timely comforting,] epigenetic effects occur (genes are turned on or off and become part of subsequent cell generation). As a result, brain stress response systems can be wired permanently for oversensitivity and overreactivity (Anisman, Zaharia, Meaney, & Merali., 1998), leading to predispositions for clinical depression and anxiety (Barbas et al., 2003; de Kloet, Sibug, Helmerhorst, & Schmidt, 2005; see Watt & Panksepp, 2009, for a review), poor mental and physical health outcomes, and accelerated aging and mortality (for a review, Preston & de Waal, 2002)

Unrelieved distress in early life reduces the expression of GABA genes, leading to anxiety and depression disorders as well as increased use of alcohol for stress relief (Caldji, Francis, Sharma, Plotsky, & Meaney, 2000; Hsu et al., 2003). When emotional dysregulation becomes chronic, it forms the foundation for further psychopathologies (Cole, Michel & Teti, 1994), especially depression.

Infant emotional dysregulation is related to subsequent mental illness, including a propensity for violence (Davidson, Putnam & Larson, 2000). Stress that leads to “insecure attachment” disrupts emotional functioning, compromises social abilities and can promote a permanent bias towards self-preservation (Henry & Wang, 1998; also see Schore, in press, for a review). Children who are not nurtured well in early life tend to be more stress reactive, aggressive and troublesome.

Bottom line: Parents shape self-control in babyhood with nurturing care. Making sure babies’ needs are met promptly builds calm systems. Parents who don’t respond to baby’s needs lead to systems that are poorly shaped and easily stressed. What the baby’s body “practices” (calmness or distress) becomes habitual.


 Babies cannot sooth their own distress, and require a caregiver to calm them down when crying or alarmed. How we respond to their cues lays a foundation for future stress responses; cries that are not responded to flood the brain with stress-hormone cortisol, which can prevent the formation of critical neuron synapses in critical areas of the brain responsible for forming attachments and emotional wellbeing.
The message is clear: old advice to leave babies alone to “self-sooth” is erroneous and damaging; not responding to cries in a timely manner lays a poor foundation for mental health.
Anticipating stressful situations and reactions before they escalate is easier than trying to relax a hysterical baby. Practicing empathic attachment-parenting ensures that care-givers and babies are in sync.

Supportive parenting builds better brains

Love is all you need? Maybe not quite, but a recent study published by The National Academy of Sciences shows in new terms the impact that positive parental care has on a child’s brain:

Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in nondepressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.

Positive parenting enhances neurogenesis, and it isn’t limited to mothers:

The experience of a nurturing caregiver early in life has proven to be one of the most essential prerequisites for healthy development and adaptive functioning in mammals (37). The current data provide evidence that the well-established significant impact of positive parenting on enhancing and maintaining hippocampal neuroplasticity, likely through epigenetic mechanisms enhancing neurogenesis, as suggested by the work of Naumova et al. (17), may also to be operative in humans. Further, it was notable that this effect remained robust even after controlling for other factors known to impact hippocampal volume, such as stressful life events and maternal history of depression. Importantly, although 96.7% of caregivers in this study sample were mothers, we expect that this effect pertains to the primary caregiver (the provider of nurturance) whether it be mother, father, grandparent, or other.


Also covered by CNN: Love key to brain development in children

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Enabling empathic minds: a snapshot of cortisol and neurons


It’s a noble pursuit, for a parent, to want to foster in our children as many neuron connections as we can, and a staggering number of these are formed in infancy and early childhood. According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the new book, Connectome, the essence of our personalities and behaviour originate in the billions of these neuron connections in our brains. Time  has an interview with Seung on the amazing implications of being able to map these connections, including the scientific possibility of ‘mind-reading,’ and understanding various neurological conditions.)

While genetics determine our basic blue-print, (we already have nearly all our neurons at birth,) early childhood is a key time for forming connections between them:

“In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.

“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.”

Parents help lay the groundwork for these connections daily, consciously or not, through environmental and sensory stimulation. But how about being mindful of factors which can contribute to what has been termed “neuron death?”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays an important role in many of our bodily systems, such as blood pressure, immune response, and glucose metabolism.  Cortisol is part of our proper response to stress, pain, and maintains homeostasis in the body. However, prolonged and/or consistently elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream, secreted by the adrenal gland in the absence of activation of the body’s essential relaxation response, is a neuron killer (Panksepp, 1998), and children who are spanked frequently (see also: Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ,), experience the effects maternal emotional withdrawal, as well as babies left to ‘cry it out’, demonstrate higher levels of cortisol. Without the chance for the cortisol spikes to return to normal, a state of chronic stress can result. Responding instantly to a baby’s cues are one way of inducing this essential relaxation response. Thanks to neuroscience,  we now know that routinely letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.

If you want to help make a planet full of super-empathic mind readers, one small step is refusing the practices which create a toxic environment for optimal neuron synapse development.