This is the first article in our Biology Series, in which we will focus on the mind-body-emotion connection. Emotional wellbeing, positive attachments or the lack thereof, have a direct impact on our biology — from physical health outcomes to the development of our brain. Here we begin with what scientists who study the brain are learning about these connections as they look at infants and young children.
As researchers have gained a deeper understanding of neurobiology, they have learned that relationships shape the developing brain even in the womb — and they continue to affect the brain’s wiring throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Brain development begins two weeks after conception and continues most rapidly during the first three years of life. Studies show that prenatal stress experienced by the mother produces increased norepinephrine (arousal and agitation) and decreased levels of dopamine and serotonin for the child. These are linked to future depression, anxiety and emotional dysregulation Once the child is born and in early childhood, attachment experiences significantly influence brain development. The baby’s brain, specifically the limbic system, relies on sensitive and attuned care from attachment figures for healthy growth and functioning. Chronic stress associated with lack of safe and secure attachment can impair the formation of brain circuits and alter levels of stress hormones (cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine), resulting in emotional and biological dysregulation, anxiety, and depression.
The Bucharest Project
The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which studied children in Romanian orphanages, clearly illustrates the impact of early attachment or lack of attachment on the brain. The study followed three groups of children: 1) institutionalized group—children living in an orphanage all their lives; 2) foster care group—children institutionalized at birth then placed in foster care at a mean age of 22 months; and 3) never-institutionalized group—children living with their biological parents. The institutionalized children showed stunted and delayed patterns of brain activity, cognitive development, and physical growth. Meanwhile, children placed in foster care before age 2 showed patterns of brain activity similar to never-institutionalized children. The research concluded that “placing children before age 2 in safe, loving, and responsive families increases the possibility for healthy emotional, social, and neurobiological development.”
Babies are right-hemisphere dominant, responding primarily to preverbal and nonverbal emotional communication—facial expressions, mutual gaze, touch, tone of voice, and in-arms security and safety. The infant’s right brain and the attachment figure’s right brain are in-synch and attuned during moments of loving and safe connection. This limbic resonance is the fundamental building block of secure attachment and leads to the child’s ability to self-regulate and to the formation of the child’s core beliefs about him or herself.
Early experiences of secure or insecure attachment are encoded into the implicit (preverbal and unconscious) memory systems in the limbic brain and become mindsets and expectations that guide subsequent behavior.
However, through healing parenting and therapeutic support, even a child who experienced trauma, alienation or abuse as an infant, can develop attached relationships long after those first three years. The brain can be rewired. The ability to self-regulate and build positive core beliefs can be learned. Contact Evergreen Psychotherapy Center can help teach families how to rewire the brain.