On May 27, 2015, the Charlie Rose show on PBS aired a fantastic review of the latest neuroscience of parenting.
This episode is part of an ongoing set of panel discussions covering some of the most interesting work on the mind over the last few years. It is on the Charlie Rose show, but the entire set of panel discussions is co-hosted by Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and a classical psychoanalyst.
I am a very big fan of Dr. Kandel. He is truly a genius, but very humanistic and caring. I can also highly recommend two books of his I have read. In Search of Memory is a magnificent tour of the neuroscience of memory and his ground-breaking discoveries on how memory physically occurs. And, the Age of Insight is one of my favorites, a truly incredible review of turn-of-century Vienna where the most fascinating topics were all about medical discoveries, and how that helped define the birth of modern art.
On this panel discussion, Dr. Kandel hosts a team of superstar researchers from Harvard, Columbia, and such schools. There is also a pediatrician who talks about his own personal experience of paternal post-partum depression.
The findings presented, research discussed, and experiences shared touch on many of the central concerns and experiences all parents share or have concerns about.
The big themes of the discussion include the following:
- How does attachment work? How does the brain lead parents to connect to their baby?
- What happens when attachment does not work? What goes wrong inside the baby’s brain and outside in the baby’s life?
- Can troubles with attachment be reversed later in life?
- What is post-partum depression? How often does it happen? How often does it happen to fathers? What can be done about it?
- Is there a point at which improvements in parenting offer no further benefit to the child, or are we all in the position of feeling we should have done more?
Attachment is the core of all parenting, and it is just what the word means in plain English, the extent to which a parent feels connected to their baby, and the baby feels connected to the parent. In this program, we find just how dramatically attachment makes a difference. Without it, a baby’s brain will actually have dramatically less electrical activity and will grow to be physically much smaller.
The key attachment that makes the baby’s mind grow and fire away is emotional, not cognitive. That means playing and touching and laughing together makes all the difference in the world. It is loving and playing that literally turns the baby’s mind on to grow and develop.
Strictly speaking, if one could present purely factual material to a newborn and infant it appears it would have little impact on stimulating the brain to develop. Of course, in the normal course of presenting cognitive materials, we almost always connect it to emotion. Who can read their baby Goodnight Moon without being tender and cuddly?
But the point here is that play trumps teaching. It is truly the playful loving way we all have with our children that their minds require in order to grow and function.
What Happens if Attachment does not Happen?
Let me preface their findings by making clear that attachment almost always happens in a family. It takes a true catastrophe to keep it from taking place. The research done to answer this question required finding orphanages in ravished lands where infants got little or no attention.
With that in mind, the research finds that when a baby has no emotional input from a loving adult, their brain’s electricity literally nearly stops firing. Further, the number of nerve cells in their brain fails to increase and the number of connections between nerve cells in their brains fail to grow at anywhere the normal rate.
This is very striking. Love and play are required to make the human (and animal) brain actually fire electrical signals and grow. For humans left to complete neglect, IQ’s can drop to the level of 50, or barely half of normal intelligence, a level of serious mental impairment.
Can Troubles with Attachment be Reversed Later in Life?
Yes, the researchers found that if a child impaired by no attachment in infancy receives loving care and playfulness even later in childhood, their brains regain normal electrical activity and intelligence zooms upward.
Somewhere on the order of 9-16% of all women who deliver experience the difficult experience of post-partum depression. The research presented on this phenomenon were also deeply compelling. There appears to be a direct link between the extremely dramatic shifts in hormone levels and mood. This should provide some comfort as it proves that the profound sadness of post-partum depression is purely a physical event and has nothing to do with how the mother (or father) truly feels about their beloved baby.
A pediatrician described in moving and articulate terms his experience of paternal post-partum depression.
Also encouraging was the benefit of treatment and the good chance of reversing this experience with therapy and treatment.
Here is a very useful link for further information about post-partum depression: http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/depression/postpartum.aspx
The key insight on this subject was that the parent struck by this physical event must face the challenge of feeling badly about feeling badly, otherwise the help that makes such a difference will not be within reach.
Is there a Ceiling to Attachment, to Love from Parents?
This was one of the most fascinating findings discussed.
It turns out the answer is yes. That is, after engaging with your newborn, infant, child with loving playfulness, and the ability to attend to their emotions and respond in a way that suggests to them that your are indeed aware and caring of their emotions, there is no benefit to doing this at greater and greater levels.
Basics of love, play, and being responsive turn out to do all that can be done to promote our children’s well-being.
Once a parent is loving, caring and responsive to even basic degrees, no parent should worry about feeling that their infant or child is on the edge of not getting enough love, or that if only the parent did more, their child’s brain would be that much better. This has been measured and it turns out extra, extra love and attention does nothing more than the basics.
I found this a powerful finding because it supports the whole concept that a healthy, thriving, happy child deserves parents taking pleasure in their child, rather than parents worried that the good things they do are not enough, or that their child is at risk.
1. This link will bring you to a truly outstanding show reviewing some of the latest research on the neuroscience of parenting. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/
2. The host of this discussion is one of the world’s leading and most thoughtful neuroscientists, Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel.
3. Attachment is necessary for a newborn and infant’s brain literally to work and to grow.
4. Successful attachment simply requires an adult (doesn’t even have to be the parent) to love the child, to love being with them, to play with them, and to be responsive to their emotions over time. Once a basic level of loving, responsive play is achieved, there is not much further gained from more of it.
5. Post-partum depression affects about one in 6-10 women who deliver, but also some new fathers. It is a physical event that turns emotions towards profound sadness and distance. As physical changes can cause the depression, physical treatments can reverse it. The key to the terrible experience of post-partum depression is for the person experiencing moving beyond the guilt of bad feeling towards the hope of recovery and treatment.
6. Overall, the program offers a fascinating discussion of just how good parenting helps a child’s mind function and grow. And, very importantly, that once good parenting is happening, parents can relax with the knowledge that neuroscience finds that is all that is needed, there are not benefits to every increasing levels of play and responsiveness.
I hope you enjoy this program as much as I did.
To your health,