The Nature of Early Memory, Part 2
Peter G. Prontzos
In order to understand a baby's (or a child's) reaction to trauma, we must begin with several basic concepts.
The first is an evolutionary perspective: our behavior is primarily shaped by the absolute imperative of survival, at least until we reach the age to reproduce and pass on our genetic heritage.
Surviving infancy and childhood is especially problematic for humans, since we are born at a relatively earlier stage of development than other mammals (mostly because of the large size of the head, which would make birth even more dangerous if gestation lasted more than 9 months).
Our relative "immaturity" at birth means that humans are even more dependent on their parents than other animals are. It makes perfect evolutionary sense, then, that we would possess an innate repertoire of behaviors (such as smiling, or crying) to communicate our needs, such as for food and warmth, to our parents.
The second fundamental concept is that our most basic behaviors are reactions to pleasure or pain. Simply put, pain signals dangers to be avoided, while pleasure in normally associated with having one's needs met. Pain and pleasure are thus both rough guides for survival.
On the positive side, for instance, nurturing interactions between a parent and child are pleasurable and facilitate bonding and encourage healthy brain development, appropriate hormone levels, and a responsive immune system, among other benefits.
However. when children do not get what they need, whether it be food, attention, cuddling, verbal play, and so on, the physical and emotional pain that they experience will tend to increase, and they will usually become more and more agitated in order to communicate their desperation to their parents.
This is when the child's sympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in crying, thrashing about, rapid heart beat, and the release of stress hormones, among other responses – all part of a desperate attempt to communicate distress to their caregivers.
This reaction is a result of the "fight-flight-freeze response" 1 that is found in animals from reptiles to mammals to primates – like us. When confronted with danger, or pain, the initial response is for the sympathetic nervous system to become activated, providing more energy for the body to deal with the threat.
The longer that the child's needs are ignored, the greater the levels of both physical and emotional stress will be. The feelings that result from being ignored tend to be increasing confusion, distress, and anxiety. A sense of being utterly alone, of exhaustion, and of never-ending pain may cause the child to do the only thing that it can do in such a hopeless situation. Rather than being consumed by the agony that it is feeling, it learns that it has only one desperate choice: to give up the struggle. No person, especially a baby or child, can survive never-ending stress and agitation. One the child reaches the point that it can't fight any more, another unconscious "reptilian" reflex may be activated. The parasympathetic nervous system now takes over, shutting down the stuggle and resorting to passivity and to conserving energy as the last hopes for survival.
Janov holds that if a child's agony ended while it was still "fighting", then it would "learn" that struggle was the key to survival. Faced with challenges in the future, such a person's sympathic nervous system would usually kick in first, with increased adrenaline, the tensing of musculature, and so on.
On the other hand, if a child's early struggles had been to no avail, he or she would "learn" hopelessness and helplessness, and their typical response to a threat would involve activation of the parasympathetic nervous sytem: reducing energy consumption, becoming passive, withdrawing from the "threat", or perhaps fainting.
Learning to primarily react with either an active or passive response is the third principle. "In evolutionary terms, the brain's ability to remember a fear of trauma response has been crucial to our long-term survival." 2
This learning occurs because, if a child's traumas are severe enough over time, or if there is one overwhelmingly stressful event, the pain can be imprinted into the child's nervous system, including the primitive brainstem, which "oversees the body's internal milieu by regulating temperature, heart rate, and basic reflexes such as breathing…" 3 And as Teicher points out, when the young brain "is being physically sculpted by experience…severe stress can leave an indelible imprint on its structure and function." 4
Even gene function can be altered by harsh experiences, because "childhood trauma can actually alter your DNA and shape the way your genes work." 5
A child learns to associate certain stimuli with particular responses, much as Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, even if food (the original stimulus) was not present. This form of classical conditioning, which is fundamental to learning, is a key element in the emergence of neurosis.
Indeed, Pavlov himself thought,
that conditioned reflexes could explain the behavior of psychotic people. For example, he suggested, those who withdrew from the world may associate all stimulus with possible injury or threat. 6
Janov contends that one of the central aspects of neurosis (and psychosis) is that the person is in the grip of feelings and reactions from the past, which, even if necessary then, are not appropriate in the present.
For instance, Anand and Scalzo report that, exposing a newborn "to repetitive pain" may lead to "phenotypes characterized by increased anxiety, altered pain sensitivity, stress disorders, hyperactivity/attentiond deficit disorder", which could have further problems such as "self-destructive behavior" 7.
Early, unconsious memories, imprinted in one's nervous system, have the potential to drive the neurotic and hijack his or her life. Such a person is, indeed, a "prisoner of pain".
- Siegel, Daniel. The Healing Brain. Norton (New York) 2007. [p 34].
- "New Understanding Of How We Remember Traumatic Events". ScienceDaily. 29 October 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081028103111.htm
- Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Norton. (New York) 2002. [p. 70].
- Teicher, Martin H. "Scars that won't heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse." In Scientific American. March 2002. [p. 69].
- Press Release. Childhood trauma has life-long effect on genes and the brain. McGill University. Montreal. 22 February 2009.
- PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhpavl.html
- Anand, K. & Scalzo, F. "Can Adverse Neonatal Experiences Alter Brain Development and Subsequent Behavior?" Biology of the Neonate. Biol Neonate 2000;77: 69-82.