It is a wonderful discovery when you find different disciplines coming together to produce a new understanding of emotional life. The technically written information from Doctors, Researchers, Scientists and Academics often don’t reach the public forum where this information is so desperately needed.
The latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis and biochemistry are offering a deeper understanding of our social behaviour. In infancy we develop our ‘social brain’ and begin the development of emotional regulation.
- Love is essential to early brain development
- Early interactions between babies and their parents have lasting and serious consequences
- Earliest Relationships shape your baby’s nervous system
- Emotional well-being later on can be affected by how your baby’s brain develops
- Early ‘pathways’ can affect how your child responds to stress
This information gives enormous validity to the work I do with Mothers and their babies. Parental misinformation or lack of support and/or ability to cope with their baby’s care can set up issues for a lifetime and inevitably harm others too. Where behaviour traits, illness or criminality are seen to be ‘in the genes’ and inevitable, they may actually be avoidable. It has alway been my belief that Mothers need support NOT criticism. I would rather a Mother call me and say she can’t cope with her baby crying or she wants a break than look after those babies in hospital when they’ve been shaken or physically injured. They are the ones I’ve seen. There are so many more babies who have had ‘invisible’ emotional injury inflicted. Their Mothers need help to STOP and their Mothers need a community who cares enough to give them assistance not condemnation.
It is a very positive and exciting future if the harm done to one generation through lack of support and resources need NOT be done to the next. If we support our Mothers, Fathers and their babies we may be preventing a pattern-repeat. A damaged child does NOT have to grow up to be a damaged and damaging parent.
For our support to be effective, it needs to start during pregnancy and continue for the first two years of life when the ‘social brain’ is shaped and an individuals ’emotional style’ and ’emotional resources’ are established.
“In the more affluent societies, we have achieved many scientific breakthroughs and we have pills and potions for lots of ills as well as the belief that we will have enough to eat and live into old age. BUT until now, our emotional wellbeing has been pushed aside because it could not be measured and quantified. NOW it can be – to a point. Neuroscientists can make a ‘map’ of our brain when emotions are being experienced. Biochemists can now measure chemicals which are involved in an emotional response and have located their receptors within our bodies! So….after 300 years we are finally displaying an interest in emotion!
Psychology has also has refined tools used to understand early emotional life. In one study a psychiatrist called Daniel Stern filmed interactions between Mothers and babies and then analysed them frame by frame. He used information gathered by Psychoanalyst John Bowlby and Psychologist Mary Ainsworth who established the framework or ‘attachment theory’ in the 1960s. The integrated disciplines have come to a striking conclusion that ‘feelings come first’. The higher parts of our brain cannot operate without our more primitive ‘gut responses’! Dr John Bowlby also said “to understand people you have to understand their environment”.
“Human beings are open systems, permeated by other humans as well as plants, air and water. We are shaped by other people as well as by what we eat and breathe. Both our physiological systems and our mental systems are developed in relationship with other people – and this happens MOST intensely and leaves its biggest mark in infancy. We live in a social world where we rely on complex chains of social interaction to bring food to our table, clothes on our bodies and a roof over our heads, as well as the cultural interactions we are stimulated by. WE CANNOT SURVIVE ALONE.
The human baby is the most socially influenced creature on earth, open to learning what his own emotions are and how to manage them. Our earliest experiences as babies have much more relevance to our adult selves than many of us realise. It is as babies that we first feel and learn what to do with our feelings. As babies we start to organise our experience in a way that will affect our later behaviour and thinking capacities.”
– Excerpts used from the Introduction in “Why love matters” by Sue Gerhardt
Sue Gerhardt is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Private Practice. She is also cofounder of the Oxford Parent Infant Project (OXPIP), a pioneering charity that provides psychotherapeutic help to parents with their babies.