WHAT’S the difference between these two brains? They both belong to three-year-olds. So why is one so much bigger? Because one was loved by its parents and the other neglected – a fact that has dramatic implications.
Take a careful look at the image of two brains on this page. The picture is of the brains of two three-year-old children. It’s obvious that the brain on the left is much bigger than the one on the right. The image on the left also has fewer spots, and far fewer dark “fuzzy” areas.
To neurologists who study the brain, and who have worked out how to interpret the images, the difference between these two brains is both remarkable and shocking.
The brain on the right lacks some of the most fundamental areas present in the image on the left. Those deficits make it impossible for that child to develop capacities the child on the left will have: the child on the right will grow into an adult who is less intelligent, less able to empathise with others, more likely to become addicted to drugs and involved in violent crime than the child on the left.
The child on the right is much more likely to be unemployed and to be dependent on welfare, and to develop mental and other serious health problems.
What could possibly cause so radical a divergence in brain development? The obvious answer is that it must have been some illness or terrible accident.
The obvious answer is wrong.
The primary cause of the extraordinary difference between the brains of these two three-year-old children is the way they were treated by their mothers. The child with the much more fully developed brain was cherished by its mother, who was constantly and fully responsive to her baby. The child with the shriveled brain was neglected and abused.
That difference in treatment explains why one child’s brain develops fully, and the other’s does not.
Neurologists are beginning to understand exactly how a baby’s interaction with their mother determines how, and indeed whether, the brain grows in the way that it should. Professor Allan Schore, of UCLA, who has surveyed the scientific literature and has made significant contributions to it, stresses that the growth of brain cells is a “consequence of an infant’s interaction with the main caregiver [usually the mother]”. The growth of the baby’s brain “literally requires positive interaction between mother and infant. The development of cerebral circuits depends on it.”
Prof Schore points out that if a baby is not treated properly in the first two years of life, the genes for various aspects of brain function, including intelligence, cannot operate, and may not even come into existence. Nature and nurture cannot be disentangled: the genes a baby has will be profoundly affected by the way it is treated.
The damage caused by neglect and other forms of abuse comes by degrees: the more severe the neglect, the greater the damage.
Scientists say 80% of brain cells that a person will ever have are manufactured during the first two years after birth.
If the process of building brain cells and connections between them goes wrong, the deficits are permanent. This discovery has enormous implications for social policy. – Daily Telegraph