It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. – Frederick Douglass
Our focus in this essay is on the relationship among a child’s identity, stress that the child encounters early in life and the how child’s brain is affected. Some might ask if there are any such relationships which would be a good question. For the answer we turn to the American Academy of Pediatrics which is issuing a warning (2012) that “toxic stress” perhaps in the womb but most certainly in the first years of life can cause permanent damage to children. This conclusion follows two decades of research.
The damage in question, as we shall see in a moment can be physical and psychological but the most shocking connection is that between stress and the behavioral circuitry in the brain. In other words, we might be seeing more deeply into the origins of the false self. Even more intriguing, do these recent findings present an opportunity along with meditation and The Point of Power Practice to mitigate the self-destructive conditioning that threatens the very survival of humanity?
What is toxic stress? If the child, perhaps even before birth, experiences negative emotional energy (afflictive emotions) from anyone in its environment, this stress can create long-term, even life-long damage. Not just the presence of negative energy, but the absence of positive energy can cause this damage. Nicholas Kristoff writes in his column in The New York Times entitled “A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug,” It [toxic stress] might derive from chronic neglect—a child cries without being cuddled. Affection seems to defuse toxic stress—keep those hugs and lullabies coming!
Now we can move on to the physiological effects on the brain itself. The negative energy, the toxic stress, causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol that can affect the body’s metabolism or the structure of the brain. This damage from the release of stress hormones is most pronounced from conception through early childhood while the brain experiences its greatest plasticity. The “rewiring” is less likely to occur after this crucial period. This is also the time, obviously, for the most effective intervention.
For those of us who have supported early childhood education including emotional, nutritional and psychological support, now must consider beginning those strategies much, much earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health. Are there any programs responding to these new scientific findings?
The Nurse-Family Partnership realizes that interventions must begin with expectant mothers. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2. Is a program like this successful?
For those of us who understand how powerful a P-A context, a new identity and the resulting compassionate behavior can be, we are not surprised by the statistics coming out of the initial interventions where children experience the compassion that all children need and deserve. At age 6, studies have found, these children are only one-third as likely to have behavioral or intellectual problems as others who weren’t enrolled. At age 15, the children are less than half as likely to have been arrested.
How about the case for rewiring the brain before birth? We have evidence of …several Dutch men and women who had been in utero during a brief famine at the end of World War II.Decades later, those “famine babies” had more trouble concentrating and more heart disease than those born before or after.
This emerging knowledge concerning our ability to shape human behavior by “rewiring” the brain has enormous implications for the future of the global village. We can add this to our strategies for creating a sustainable human community. Failure to do so will result in a very bleak future for generations of children to come.
The greatest chance for creating a sustainable global village community comes with a powerful alliance between the human intellect and our inner wisdom, between an open mind and an open heart. Time may be running out to make this crucial connection. A group of scientists that tracks the likelihood of a global cataclysm says the world is moving closer to doomsday. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Tuesday [January 10, 2012] that it has moved its “Doomsday Clock” to five minutes to midnight.
Uniting our two most powerful attributes as human beings, that of problem solving in P-B (the intellect) with that of our connection to the source of Creation itself (our intuition) we can create consciousness itself. If we can shape the brain itself lessening the reactivity of the human organism, increasing our ability to live in the present moment, and thereby increasing human compassion on our planet, perhaps we can turn back the hand on the Doomsday Clock.
References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.