Solving Humanity’s Emotional Disorders

Mother Nature and Mother Nurture shape human nature

Posted May 17, 2015

*co-author is David E. Roy, Ph.D.

The scientific facts are in: Quality mother care in early life is key to emotional wellbeing.

Leckman and March (2011) wrote the article, ‘Developmental neuroscience comes of age’, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry where they said

“It has . . . become abundantly clear that . . . the in utero and immediate postnatal environments and the dyadic relations between child and caregivers within the first years of life can have direct and enduring effects on the child’s brain development and behavior . . . The enduring impact of early maternal care and the role of epigenetic modifications of the genome during critical periods in early brain development in health and disease is likely to be one of the most important discoveries in all of science that have major implications for our field (p. 334).

Over the last few decades and in many stellar publications, Allan Schore, noted UCLA neuropsychologist and leading expert in early childhood brain development, has integrated neurobiological research to show the importance of mother-care in childhood. A new article of his states that “optimal attachment experiences facilitate the experience-dependent maturation of the early developing ‘emotional’ right brain and thereby a predisposition for emotional wellbeing in later stages of life” (2015, p. 1).

Indeed, converging evidence is demonstrating the truth of his statement 20 years ago, “The beginnings of living systems set the stage for every aspect of an organism’s internal and external functioning throughout the life span” (Schore, 1994, p. 3). The work in my lab is part of the evidence where we show that care consistent with the Evolved Developmental Niche in early life influences wellbeing and morality not only during preschool years but in adulthood (see below).

So what do we do now, in an era when mothers (and fathers) are not supported to provide the type of care that babies need for optimal development? How do we support families when loving and supportive extended families are rare? How do we help adults heal from early undercare?

Both Allan Schore and I will be discussing these issues when we contribute to the sessions on “The Impact on the Human Psyche of the Rise of Civilization” (headed by psychotherapist, David Roy, and psychiatrist, James Lehman), in the Alienation from Nature section, at the huge conference, Seizing an Alternative: Toward a New Ecological Paradigm, organized by John Cobb, to be held at Pomona College in Claremont, California, June 4-7, 2015. (CEU credits available.)

The session will draw on audience expertise as well to aim for an empirically guided way to reach a future free of some of the most difficult emotional disorders, including:

  • How much of the brain’s systems develop in response to a “self-regulating” mother, how this results in the child’s ability to self-regulate, and what happens when this is missing;
  • How the life-style of our species prior to agriculture supported this development in a natural way;
  • How the right brain’s dominance for the first three years shapes much of what is to come, including the basis for compassion but also a sensitivity to feel devalued if things go wrong;
  • The extent to which the changes in our lifestyle that have moved us away from our evolutionarily-developed way of life may underlie not just intense emotional disorders but also forms of prejudice and interpersonal violence (up to and including war);

Other topics that extend from the main body of the program include:

  • A review of some of the newer therapies that work successfully with the emotional wounds suffered in the preverbal period; and also of existing programs that aim at helping at strengthening attachment.
  • Consideration of activities, movements, programs, to root these findings in multiple cultures and to encourage their adoption as guides for how Homo sapiens babies and toddlers are treated and cared for so that we can mend our souls and prevent the catastrophic collapses that increasingly seem inevitable. 
  • Reflections on a metatheory of psychology that is emerging from neuroscience, rooted in the body’s nervous system, the brain in particular;
  • An introduction to Whitehead’s theory of perception to demonstrate how his metaphysics can be discerned in current views of hemispheric differences; thus raising the possibility that Whitehead’s universal metaphysics could serve as a heuristic guide for a metatheory of neuroscience and psychology in general. 
  • What has changed so radically since the Hunter Gatherer days is the ability to give infants and toddlers a solid and confident start in life, confidence in others being their for them when their needs are intense, and self-regulation capacities for a lifetime.

NEW BOOK: To read more about the importance of early experience for optimal development, see the book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom

REFERENCES

Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of development psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 59-87.

Schore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Schore, A.N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment & Human Development, 2, 23-47.

Schore, A.N. (2001a). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 201-269.

Schore, A.N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36, 9-30.

Schore, A.N. (2003a). Affect regulation and the origin of the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A. N. (2003b).  Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2005). Attachment, affect regulation, and the developing right brain: Linking developmental neuroscience to pediatrics. Pediatrics In Review, 26, 204-211.

Schore, A.N. (2013). Bowlby's "Environment of evolutionary adaptedness": Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. In, D. Narvaez,  J. Panksepp, A.N. Shore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Human Nature, Early Experience and Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schore, A.N. (2015). Plenary address, Australian Childhood Foundation Conference Childhood Trauma: Understanding the basis of change and recovery, Early right brain regulation and the relational origins of emotional wellbeing. Children Australia. Available on CJO 2015 doi: 10.1017/cha.2015.13

NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:

When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works (see my website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)