by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse
Although Mother’s Day is usually a purely sentimental occasion, the hard science of neurobiology has now confirmed the importance of mothers.
The most basic maternal activities have a profound impact on the development of the baby’s brain. I’m not talking about fads like the Mozart Effect or Baby Genius which claim to improve IQ. Since time immemorial, mothers have done little natural things like rocking the baby, looking at the baby while nursing or changing their diapers, tickling them, playing peek-a-boo, and imitating all their little baby noises. Science now knows that activities like these develop our basic capacity for sociability and connection. The freedom and security of society ultimately depend on most of the mothers and babies doing these things together.
How can this be?
The part of the brain that allows us to respond to touch, proximity, and other people’s emotions is called the limbic brain. This part of the brain lays the foundation for the development of the conscience. A free society, more than any other kind of society, requires a population of people with the capacity for self-control, self-command and reciprocity. Society cannot accommodate very many people who lack a basic regard for other people and an internal sense of law-abidingness. We develop these social capacities by being in relationship with our mothers.
A landmark report from the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA of the USA, and the Institute for American Values draws together information from neuroscience, as well as from pediatric mental health practitioners. The title of the report conveys their conclusion: we human beings are Hardwired to Connect. The mental health professionals explain their belief that American children are in crisis with one simple phrase: Our waiting lists are too long. They bolster this impressionistic claim with more systematic evidence: increases in the numbers of students with clinical depression, addictive disorders, neuroticism, and suicidal thoughts. By the 1980's, U.S. children on the whole were reporting more anxiety than did children who were psychiatric patients in the 1950's. (Pg. 8) The members of this distinguished Commission on Children at Risk conclude that the cause of the crisis is that too few adults appreciate the profound importance of human connection on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being of children.
"If children are hardwired to connect, and if the current ecology of childhood is leading to a weakening of connectedness and therefore to growing numbers of suffering children, building and renewing authoritative communities is arguably the greatest imperative that we face as a society." Hardwired to Connect, p.33
A relationship is a physiological event because we have bodily responses to other people. The limbic brain controls our physiological responses to other people. Much of its development takes place after birth, by being in a relationship with the mother. (If our brains were fully developed in utero, our heads would be too big to make it out of the birth canal without killing our mothers.)
This is the part of the brain that makes a hug feel good. The limbic brain allows us to “read” other people’s feelings. We can look at each other and sense whether another person is angry, happy or fearful. The limbic brain makes watching a movie in a crowded theater a more intense experience than watching it at home alone. The close contact with all those other people makes the scary parts scarier, the funny parts funnier, and the exciting parts more thrilling.
The limbic brain is unique to mammals, and allows us to have the kind of social life suitable for animals whose young are born alive, and dependent. When mother monkeys separate from their babies, the babies go through a “protest” phase, and then a “despair” phase. Scientists have measured the physiological attributes associated with these phases. Human infants have many of these same reactions.
The youngsters cry out, run around and search for their missing mommy. The baby’s heart rate increases. So does his body temperature. His little body produces elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and elevated levels of catecholamine, an adrenaline-like hormone that increases alertness.
The baby cannot sustain this heightened level of alertness and tension indefinitely. If the mother is absent long enough, the infant enters the “despair” phase. He stops crying for his mommy. He may slouch, huddle himself and look sad. The infant’s heart rate and body temperature decrease. His consumption of oxygen decreases, his immune system is impaired, his sleep rhythms change. His little body produces less growth hormones. This is why children raised in orphanages or who have prolonged hospital stays lose weight, and fail to grow. This is the physiological source of the “failure to thrive” syndrome.
"So here is the story so far. On the one hand, a large body of evidence, including recent findings from the field of neuroscience, suggesting that the human person is hardwired to connect to other people and to moral and spiritual meaning. And on the other hand, a long-term weakening of precisely those social groups that connect us to one another and to shared meaning. Is it logical to conclude that the diminishment of these authoritative communities is at least partly responsible for the steady rise in the proportion of U.S. children suffering from mental, emotional, and behavioral problems? We believe the answer is yes." p.42
A human infant deprived of human contact is most stunted in his emotional growth, in his ability to intuit other people’s emotions, in his responsiveness to other people’s emotions, in even his ability to notice or care about other people. This is probably why the problems of the little orphanage children are so persistent. These kids are completely deprived of either a mother or even a mother substitute. They are not only psychologically damaged, but their brain development has been hampered as well.
The problems of these children in extremely deprived situations give us insight into the probable causes of the widespread crisis among ordinary children from ordinary American families. Too many adults, parents, teachers and policy-makers, fail to appreciate our need for human connection. Too many of us see the primary business of parenthood as transferring resources from big people to little people. But the primary business of motherhood and fatherhood is building relationships. We are hardwired to connect, and no amount of chatter can deconstruct this basic fact out of existence.