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Why Love MattersReview - Why Love Matters
How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain
by Sue Gerhardt
1583918175, 2004
Review by Kevin Purday
Jun 6th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 23)

This is a very ambitious book. The author, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, sets out to show that, although our genetic inheritance may predispose us towards a range of physical characteristics and may increase our likelihood of having some and avoiding other illnesses, it is the way we are brought up, especially in our earliest years, which is likely to influence our ability to form and maintain loving relationships when we are adults.

In the first chapter the author lays emphasis on the now well-known theories of attachment especially as proposed by Bowlby. This is mainly covering old ground but what the author then does is to raise the argument to a different plane by going into considerable detail about how the human brain develops and which part of the brain controls the various functions we undertake. This is heady stuff! That chapter leads neatly on to the next which is about the role that cortisol plays. Cortisol is a hormone released naturally by the body at times of stress. However, too much stress produces too much cortisol which then goes on to close down other systems and, if the situation persists for too long, even the body's immune system can be adversely affected. The author's contention is that babies are not able to regulate their own stress levels and are reliant on their parents to help them maintain an emotional equilibrium where cortisol levels are kept within bounds. The author adduces evidence to suggest that "too much cortisol can affect the development of the orbito-frontal part of the prefrontal cortex -- an area which as we have seen is responsible for reading social cues and adapting behavior to social norms." (p.66) The author goes one stage further still by indicating that there is also some evidence that high levels of cortisol in the mother can pass through the placenta and affect the fetus. The implications of this are enormous as it means that heavily stressed mothers are likely to be adversely affecting their unborn baby and this is in addition to the problems of nicotine and alcohol which can also harm the fetus. The author is not arguing that temporary periods of stress are particularly problematic. Rather, the picture she is trying to paint is that it is prolonged and uncontrollable periods of stress that are particularly damaging for the baby. This is the point where the author now reintroduces the concept of attachment. It is the stress caused by long separation from (normally) the mother or the stress caused by utterly unpredictable behavior on the mother's part that causes the damagingly high levels of cortisol. The brains of certain people who sustain long periods of high cortisol production, as a defense mechanism, close down the cortisol receptors. This is also a damaging procedure since these people can become emotionally numb and withdrawn.

The author then links the levels of cortisol with the stages of the development of the brain and further links these with the behavioral consequences of normal or abnormal development. When she applies these to an analysis of child behavior at school and especially in the playground, we the readers gain a clear picture of the consequences of good or bad child-rearing practices and we have that niggling worry that it all starts nine months earlier than the child's birth. The author provides some moving case-studies including one of two child-murderers. Poor parenting certainly does appear to be the culprit. Again, she is not saying that no-one who has suffered from poor parenting will ever be able to escape the consequences. She adamantly rejects these ultra-deterministic views. However, she is saying that poor parenting will cause problems that the child will have to try to overcome as an adolescent and as an adult. She again provides moving case-studies to prove her point.

The author ends her book with a plea for people to be educated about the awesome but wonderful responsibilities of parenthood. It is certainly frightening that rejection, lack of love and unpredictable parenting (let alone physical or sexual abuse) will almost certainly cause problems for the growing child. The upbeat message, however, is that good parenting, on the other hand, will almost certainly produce children who will themselves become good parents.

The book has been beautifully proof-read. It is written in a highly readable style even when dealing with the complex description of the growth of the brain. It has an excellent index and a superb bibliography making the book useful for the professional as well as the lay reader. The book should be prescribed reading for parenthood classes but it would also be very useful reading in psychology child development courses and, of course, for all parents and parents-to-be. It is actually a very important book and a valuable contribution to the discussion about how to ensure a more mentally healthy future for our society.

 

© 2006 Kevin M. Purday

 

Kevin Purday works at The Modern English School, Cairo, Egypt, and has a Master's degree in the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health from the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.


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