In 2015, I conducted public-health related research into the consequence of child complex trauma on the brain. The goal of my research was to develop an activity guide for lay people that could help reduce these consequences on the brain. To conduct the research, I interviewed a range of practitioners includig; psychologists, psychiatrists & neurologists in Southen California, USA. Besides that, I also also merged into the literature world on brain development and the role of attachment/ relationships in child development.
After finalizing my reserach and presenting the outcomes to “Court Appointed Special Advocates“, I realized that how we are nurtured, the way we are loved and cared for has one of the greatest impacts on how we later behave in life. It impacts how we form, build and maintain relationships, how we communicate with each other and how meaning is created within ourselves and the world around us.
The capacity to love is at the core of the success of humankind. The reason we’ve survived on this planet is that we’ve been able to form and maintain effective groups. Isolated and disconnected, we are vulnerable. In community, we can protect one another, cooperatively hunt and gather, share with the dependents of our family, our clan. Relation glue keeps our species alive, and love is the relationa superglue. Perry & Operah, 2021, p. 77
What influence does attachement have on our neurological development?
When a baby is born, it enters the world with a specific number of neurons. These neurons then form into neural networks that predefine how we view and engage in this world later on. Because the brain develops “bottom- up” (see Figure 2: Brain chart), the way in which neural networks are formed from infant age pre-define later developments in the higher regions of the brain. It defines how these regions are connected and how resiliant our behaviour will be towards challanges such as stress, disagreements or changes (think about private/work relationships or within ourselves).
How these neural networks develop differs for individuals. If a baby grows up in an attuned and loving environment, where its needs are being met emotionally and physcially, neuron-connections will form that are based on “healthy, self-regulatory and resilient” developments. If a baby grows up in a stressfull environment or an environment in which it was neglected, continuesly stressed or only its basic needs were fullfilled, the brain develops in such a way that the functions of upper brain regions can be impaired. Such impairment can be illustrated in difficulties such as “self-regulation and resiliance towards stresses, or ability to reason”. It may also impair the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships.
In adult life, such dysregulation within the adult and the adults relationship can be displayed in a range of behaviours (see Figure 2: Brainchart and related dysfunctional symptom). Someone who grew up in an environment through which healthy neurological networks developed in all four brain regions, will be more likely to view a challange as something “natural”, something that is not a threat. However, someone who has difficulties with self-regulation may view a daily challange as a threat and therefore involuntarily shuts down the more complex region of the brain responsible for reasoning and arguing (cortex-region). In doing so, the more primative functions of the brain are actived (Brainstem, Diencephalon[Midbrain]), those that support survival. While these functions possibly helped a child to survive, these functions do not serve as an adult anymore, think about someone quick to respond agressively or without thinking or someone yelling, swearing , leaving etc.
How does neural development and attachement relate to sustainable behaviour?
At my my current job, I am engaged in the development of sustainable and circular business models. I try to answer questions such as “How can sustainable business models reduce interest in consumption? And why do people consume so much? How can products create intrinsic meaning and how can such meaning be translated in a society that currently appears to seeks meaning in an access of consumption ? ” .
For so long, I could not cearly think about the answers until I began reading the book “What happenned to you? Conversations on Trauma, resilience and healing” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. It was that book that reminded me on my research on neurodevelopment and healthy attachment, that I realized many answers can be found in “dysregulations and early (un)healthy attachement“. That the more dysregulation exists within ourselves and the less healthy attachements we formed as an infant or child, the less meaning we create within ourselves and relationships. The more likely we seek satisfaction in extrinsic activities, ways of behaving and acting [unconciously] to regulate an intrinsic need (we may not be aware of). So I believe that -love / instrinsic love- is the cure to much of the sustainability debates we face today. Love and early healthy attachements, that nurture, love that supports resiliance (within brain structures) and supports curiosity for positive change. Love -that type of glue that lasts longer then the short term satisfaction from addiction such as overeating and consumption.
The challange with activating our reward circuits is that the pleasure fades. The feeling of reward is short-lived. Think how long the pleasure of eating a potato chips last. A few seconds. Then you want another. Same with a hit of nicotine from a cigarette. Or even the smile of a loved one. It feels so good in the moment, and we can recall it and get a little pleasure, but the intenses sense of reward fades. So each day we are pulled to refill our reward bucket. The healthiest way to do this is through relationships. Connectedness regulates and rewards us. Perry & Operah, 2021, p. 64.
For a sustainable society, to thrive as individual and thus, the collective, I believe that we must put greater emphasizes on healthy developments and community, identify healthy meaning within the individual that can translate into the collective and the other way round. However, how can such a society be created, if more hours are worked, if cost of living are increasing and if global inequalities persist?
Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.
Joest, A. (2015). Consequences on Complex trauma on the brain. Reserach Report. Windesheim Honours College & Court Appointed Special Advocates, Orange County, California.