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The first two years, the rest of your life

The New Republic has an amazing report about the critical importance of the first two years of life to brain development, and the social implications of same. It’s firewalled on the TNR site, but if you through The Browser, you can read the whole thing for free. Neuroscience has now demonstrated that the first two […]

The New Republic has an amazing report about the critical importance of the first two years of life to brain development, and the social implications of same. It’s firewalled on the TNR site, but if you through The Browser, you can read the whole thing for free. Neuroscience has now demonstrated that the first two years of life are so profoundly important to brain development that infants and toddlers who suffer from neglect may never fully recover. The story begins with an unprecedented study of Romanian orphans — abandoned infants warehoused by Ceausescu in government facilities, unloved and untouched.

Prior to the project, investigators had observed that the orphans had a high frequency of serious developmental problems, from diminished IQs to extreme difficulty forming emotional attachments. Meanwhile, imaging and other tests revealed that some of the orphans had reduced activity in their brains. The Bucharest project confirmed that these findings were more than random observations. It also uncovered a striking pattern: Orphans who went to foster homes before their second birthdays often recovered some of their abilities. Those who went to foster homes after that point rarely did.

This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages. In theory, damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain—making the shorter telomeres a harbinger of future mental difficulties. It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.

Drury, Nelson, and their collaborators are still learning about the orphans. But one upshot of their work is already clear. Childhood adversity can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head can. And after the age of two, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years. This is a revelation with profound implication—and not just for the Romanian orphans.

I don’t want to excerpt this much further, because I really want you to read the whole thing. In a nutshell, though, neuroscience is finding that children — usually children born in poverty — who suffer abuse or neglect within the first two years of their lives can be so neurologically damaged and impaired that later interventions, which are costly, can’t do a significant amount of good. Here’s why the damage happens:

With these hormones sloshing around, blood pressure rises, muscles tighten, and energy surges. A baby wails, waiting for somebody to provide milk, dry clothing, or maybe just a warm embrace. When comfort comes quickly, the body produces fewer stress hormones, the baby calms down, and the brain goes back to business as usual. And if this happens repeatedly, as it should, the nerve impulses crackling in the brain will carry the signals for effective coping with stress over and over again—building pathways that the baby can use later in life to solve problems and overcome difficulty.

But the baby who is ignored or neglected just keeps screaming and flailing. Eventually, he exhausts himself and may appear to withdraw. Yet the quiet child is not a content child. Constant activation of the stress system causes wear and tear on the brain, altering the formation of neural pathways, so that coping and thinking mechanisms don’t develop in the same way. For example, a baby who endures prolonged abuse or neglect is likely to end up with an enlarged amygdala: a part of the brain that helps generate the fear response.

Interestingly, the Ferber technique for teaching babies to sleep on their own involves leaving infants in their bassinets to “cry themselves out.” One cannot help wondering how much damage parents who used it (it was a big fad when our kids were babies) might have done to their young. The BabyWise method, which is popular with some Christians, does the same thing (additionally, BabyWise has been strongly criticized as a health hazard for infants).

What kind of effects does this childhood neglect have on children as they age? Look:

And the implications go beyond mental illness or crime. Children who fail to develop coping mechanisms struggle from the earliest days in school, because even the slightest provocations or setbacks destroy their focus and attention. They can’t sit still and read. They have trouble standing in line. They lash out at classmates or teachers. And these struggles, naturally, lead to other problems that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. All of this is to say that the science of early childhood may play a significant role in the dominant political question of our time: rising inequality.

Might this explain a lot of the problems of discipline and failure to thrive at schools with higher proportions of the poor among the student body? Might this also explain the relative lack of academic achievement among populations with a higher proportion of impoverished families? I’ve mentioned before an account a black pastor in Dallas gave of the time he and his wife opened their private home to children in their church, many of whom came from poor neighborhoods. They wanted to give the kids a safe place to go after school to do their homework. What they found was the kids all fell sound asleep when they arrived. The pastor learned that the kids all lived in such constant chaos at home, and had done all their lives, that they cherished the opportunity to be in a place of order and quiet. The poor kids were simply exhausted from the stress.

Key idea: it’s not poverty per se that causes this, but neglect of infants and toddlers — something that can happen if middle-class parents warehouse their little ones in a lousy day care program. But yes, much, perhaps most, of this is tied into poverty — and, perversely, all but guarantees that kids jerked up this way will persist in poverty. More:

The science of early adversity, then, offers a blueprint for tackling the effects of poverty and neglect, one that is more precise and observable than any tools policymakers have ever had at their disposal. “The concept of disrupting brain circuitry is much more compelling than the concept that poverty is bad for your health,” says Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “It gives us a basis for developing new ideas, for going into policy areas, given what we know, and saying here are some new strategies worth trying.”



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