PBS just aired the show, The Mind of a Rampage Killer. They mention in passing what is likely the major cause behind children, adolescents and adults who develop mental illness and turn to violence.

Michael Meaney and Moshe Syzf’s work on epigenetics of parenting in rats shows that nurturing touch from caregivers turns on and off hundreds of genes in a critical period after birth. One turned on controls anxiety. If the critical period is missed, the gene never gets expressed properly and ever after the individual  is anxious in new situations.

Similar effects have been found in humans. And similar longtime effects are found for other caregiving practices. Breastfeeding, responsiveness to infant cues from the beginning of life, playful companionship.

When nurturing early care does not take place, various brain systems are not established properly.

One mentioned in the show was the control of the prefrontal cortex over the amygdala. If the control is not set up properly, the amygdala can become habitually overreactive to threat and shift body energy towards threat reduction. This stress response inhibits other more sophisticated areas of the brain that might come up with options other than aggressive response.

Care received in early life influences how well set up the connection is between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

Babies expect what they evolved to need for optimal development:

Responsive Communication. Babies need to communicate with parents and caregivers—making sounds back and forth from day one.

Responsive touch. They need to be held or kept close most of the time, while the caregiver is moving. Babies will cry from lack of stimulation, lack of touch, or missed cues.

No drugs at birth. Birth drugs make babies irritable for weeks, undermining the critical first four months when mom-baby and dad-baby relationships are being set.

Playful companionship. Be a friend to the baby from the beginning. Imagine that is you trapped in a little body with few skills initially—how would you like to be treated?

Share care with others who care.

Breastfeed, if at all possible. Otherwise give a bottle like you are breastfeeding. Share gaze. Talk. Keep in communication.

These are not new or unusual ideas. These are older than the hills. But adults today are not getting the experience they need to know how important these practicea are for longterm health.

WHAT IS THE KEY for CAREGIVERS?

Follow the baby.  Don’t follow expert advice so much as follow what your baby wants because that is a sign of what they need. They are following a developmental program put in place by evolution/creation. that leads to their flourishing.

For more information on early experience, see new book:

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press. Blog post about the book here.

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