The neuroscience of connection

Photograph of a mother playing with her smiling baby

Babies notice when there is a similarity between their own actions and those of others. They participate in conversations, ‘taking their turn’ once their partner has finished making a funny face or crooning ‘cootchy-coo’. They detect when someone is looking at them, and certainly detect when someone has turned away. In short, babies are born with brains already able to make meaning – especially emotional meaning – from the experiences they have with other people.

Moreover, neuroscience is teaching us that brain development is influenced by those experiences. Brains do not unfold in accordance with a predetermined genetic plan. Instead, they are organic. Pathways grow out of the specific interactions that babies have with their world. ‘Do I live in a world where lots of people smile at me, or do I live in a world with only a few people, all of whom are more likely to be shouting than smiling?’ Evolution has ensured that babies can survive in either setting.

Our emotional adaptability can be seen as similar to our geographic adaptability. Humans can survive in warm climates, like the Mediterranean, and cold climates, like the Arctic. But life looks very different in these two regions, and they require different sets of skills and knowledge to cope with them. Life is harder when you have to battle against the elements, as opposed to life where the climate is less exacting.

Emotional adaptability is the same. Babies can learn to survive in a cold emotional climate, where they receive a low rate of responsiveness and warmth from other people. It won’t kill them. But it will make life harder, more effortful, less relaxed, more demanding. That’s the point of the terrible stories about Eastern European orphanages: children were dying from a lack of human responsiveness. They couldn’t survive in a landscape of emotional ice. When we ask babies to develop the skills – the biology and brains – to manage cold emotional climates, we are asking them to live harder, more stressful lives. Stress takes a heavy toll.

Society pays a price when a large proportion of our members are carrying brains that learned the world is a cold emotional place. Our rates of mental illness, physical illness and violent behaviour rise. Two questions we could ask ourselves, then, are: do we want to keep paying such societal prices, and do we want our children to develop brains suited to landscapes of emotional ice or emotional sunshine?

This is one reason that neuroscience is so exciting. It helps us to understand how a whole set of societal issues is related, once we understand one core insight: that babies come into the world already connected to other people.

Dr M Suzanne Zeedyk

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