Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Myth of the First Three Years

Obviously, people of any age can learn new information and change their behavioral responses to a wide variety of environmental contingencies. If that were not true, and people could not adapt to changing environments throughout their lives, it is highly unlikely that homo sapiens would have survived as a species. After all, we are relatively small, not particularly swift runners, have no natural armor or large talons with which to defend ourselves, and can die from extreme temperatures at either end of the thermometer. And yet, here we are.

The entire practice of psychotherapy is in reality predicated on the view that change is possible. If people become immutable at a certain age, then how would therapy ever help them change?

Ironically, however, somehow schools within the field of psychology often like to insist that most of our habits are completely fixed during childhood. According to the early psychoanalysts, for example, our personalities are completely developed by the time we are 5 years old. People with borderline personality disorder were thought to have “fixated” at the age of two! This meant that any psychological development after that completely stopped.

Neuroscience data is frequently cited by people who like to think they have neuroscience expertise but really do not – like many of today’s “biological” psychiatrists. In doing so, they often make assertions based on study results that have limited applicability to the psychological phenomena under discussion, or have no basis in findings from studies whatsoever. A book (recommended by parenting columnist John Rosemond) that came out way back in 1999, The Myth of the First Three Years by John T. Bruer, Ph.D, describes a particular heinous example of pseudo neuroscience that took hold with the participation of several politicians and celebrities. The misinformation is thoroughly dissected by Bruer.

The dumb idea goes something like this: the neurons in the brain develop hundreds or even thousands of synaptic connections per second until we reach the maximum number of such connections at age 3. The connections then start to be pruned. This means that the number of synaptic connections decreases over time. Therefore, kids under three need to be properly stimulated. They must be read to, learn their abc’s as early as possible, attend pre-schools, and listen to a lot of classical music. They need to become “scientifically correct.” If not, a window of opportunity will be closed forever.

This idea has led to a lot of parental guilt and anxiety, which my readers will immediately know that I think is far more damaging to kid’s psychological development than missing too much Mozart. Because of kin selection, we are probably more affected by the emotional state of our attachment figures than pretty much anything else that isn’t crazy severe like being under constant physical threat by one’s government. 

Parents who feel they may have damaged their child by, say, putting them in the wrong day care program (or heaven forbid, not putting them in any day care program at all) often become emotional wrecks who then overindulge their children, trying to prevent them from experiencing any or all emotional stress. When they seem to failing at that, as they must, they may then at times react with fury and even strike out physically with a child.

In reality, synaptic pruning probably leads to much higher brain efficiency in reacting to the environment in which the child is raised, but some people got the insane idea that the loss of neural connections after age three means something entirely different. They think that the period between ages 0-3 determines your IQ among other things, and if we want smarter and more resilient kids we must provide the proper stimulating environment or the development of our future abilities will be compromised severely. 

It is true that some aspects of the nonsensical idea may have  limited applicability to some of our psychological abilities - like learning a second language without having an accent. Almost impossible to do after the age of 12-14. But to think that somehow all of our abilities are like that is patent horse crap. Undoubtedly some of the neuroscience described in Bruer's book has become out of date due to increases in our scientific knowledge base in the last decade, but I think his basic premises remain intact.

What may get fixed in the first three years is that children become permanently much more responsive to their attachment figures than to anything else in the environment. The “serve and return” process described in an earlier post is probably related to this. Most neuronal tracks in brain are plastic in that they can form, or become stronger or weaker, over one’s entire lifetime. However, certain nerve tracks in the limbic system that are conditioned by one’s environment to respond with fear are highly resistant to major alterations. Certain faces – faces of kin – may trigger and reinforce a lot of automatic social responses to different people and situations.

The idea that children who are exposed to one environmental event or another develop immutable brain changes - other than those exceptions just listed - has even affected the highly important research in adverse childhood experiences like child abuse. Researchers do brain scans of abuse victims as adults and compare them to control subjects who had more loving childhoods, and differences in the size and activity of certain tracks remain. Hence, these researchers state, these brain changes are now irreversible.

Well they may be, but we still don’t really know. I kind of doubt it. There is some limited evidence that some of the changes can modulate with therapy, as described in a recent review article in the German journal Nervenarzt (November 2018) by  Schmahl, Niedtfeld & Herpertz. Their conclusion:

Although the overall database is still sparse, clinical improvement in psychotherapy appears to be associated with modulation of brain structure and function. Frontolimbic regulation circuits including the amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and other prefrontal areas appear to be involved in these changes. An important finding is the eduction of initially increased amygdala activity after successful Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Interestingly the last author, Herpertz, tended in the past to over-emphasize biogenetic factors over interpersonal and other environmental factors when I have spoken with her at meetings.

The folks that do the studies on untreated adults seem to think that, because they are no longer being actually beaten or molested, that the involved brain tracks are no longer being strengthened through environmental reinforcement. That also must mean that continued negative interactions with the attachment figures have come to a complete stop. Nonsense. These children continue to be around them throughout their lives, or in some cases do cut them off, but hear about them through other relatives. The “different” brain structures are thusly maintained. If that reinforcement were to be corrected, maybe those tracks would start to revert back to the size and activity levels seen in the control subjects. 

In order to know, scientists have to take into account whatever happened in childhood plus everything that happened afterwards.