Looking after little brains
I’m godmum to an adorable little girl. She’s just over one year old, and is the epitome of happy and bright babyhood. I often say to her parents their child is blessed. Being raised in such a loving and supportive home gives her a great head start in life.
Unfortunately, many children aren’t as lucky as my goddaughter, and experience considerable trauma in their early years. Worse, this can have such a negative impact on a child’s developing brain that it reshapes their destiny. Talking here about his research on childhood trauma and most importantly, what we can do about it is neuropsychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry.
Perry explains that what makes the first three to four years so important in terms of brain development is that although this continues right through adolescence and into early adulthood (an infant’s brain is 90 percent smaller than an adult’s), “the micro architectural changes that create the neurobiology of the brain take place in early life; if you disrupt that process (through trauma), you end up with altered biology and altered function.”
Perry defines trauma as any traumatic experience including physical and sexual abuse, tremendous chaos and instability, unpredictability and neglect.
The systems involved in thinking and processing information are especially vulnerable in this regard. Those affected may struggle with speech and language difficulties, regulating their impulsivity and paying attention. This in turn impacts school work, ability to connect with others and eventual employability, in other words a “cascade of problems that originate from these early developmental insults.”
Even more alarmingly, these same brain systems influence the heart, lungs, and other parts of the body, leading to premature illness and death. Sufferers of developmental trauma are at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and immune disorders.
Healing the hurt
The good news is that due to the brain’s plasticity, these developmental insults can be overcome. Perry says providing patterned, repetitive, rhythmic stimulation is “one of the most powerful and direct routes to those parts of the brain influenced by trauma.”
What’s really interesting is that many traditional healers have been doing precisely this for millennia. Having listened to and spent time in Aboriginal, Maori and first nation communities, Perry discovered that through patterned, repetitive, rhythmic activity in the form of, say, drumming, dancing, and singing, indigenous healers are able to create effective therapeutic environments.
But if there’s one thing that above all facilitates recovery from trauma, it’s the sustained presence of one or more loving and attentive individuals who “literally provide a relational milieu that has a neural biological impact” on a child’s brain.
Perry adds, “people have always known relationships matter, but we are understanding more and more about the neural biology of these relationships – and again this is no surprise to anybody; it’s common sense.”