Babies, epigenetics, the ACE study and core shame

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As I write this blog, I allow myself to go wherever my instincts take me, so that when I get a feeling that I want to pursue a particular line of enquiry, I just do it, which, as those of you who have followed me for a while will know, has led me to wander all over the place like the vagus nerve. Thus I was working on my last post when the thought came to me that I needed to go back to babies – it is after all when we are babies that core shame begins to get a foothold on our lives, and therefore it seems appropriate to go back and take a closer look at our earliest days.

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I found this on tattooshunt.com

Beliefs about babies

There was a time not so long ago when people believed that babies were a tabula rasa – a blank slate, onto which anything could be written (I imagine that there are still people around today who think this) – and that writing things on the blank slate was the correct thing to do. At the other end of the scale there are people who believe that babies ‘bring themselves up’ – that we will grow into fully-functioning adults if left to our own devices. However, neither of these things could be further from the truth, and we now know that babies are unique individuals, who even in the earliest moments of their lives, have the ability to do all sorts of things, and the potential to do all sorts of other things for which they are not usually given credit, but that they need loving adults around them to enable them to develop these potentials. (Anyone who doubts the veracity of this last point have a look at this touching, and ultimately, uplifting piece about a Romanian orphan, and studies such as this one by neuroscientist Mary Carlson, and this one, which discuss the devastating consequences of profound neglect in the early part of a child’s life).

Perhaps as a result of such studies, there has been a growing awareness of the critical importance of social interaction to the development of the infant brain, and the focus of research into babies has shifted over recent years, so that it is now concentrated more on the role of relationships with others. Rather than going into detail myself, I have spent some time looking for pieces on the internet that will give you an insight into what babies can do, and have come up with this, which answers many of the most fundamental questions regarding pre- and post-natal infant brain development. I also found this, by Abigail Tucker, a comprehensive piece on the subject of infant morality (sorry about the ads), a subject that may not seem very relevant to babies, but is, I believe, extremely important in helping us to understand the development of kindness, empathy and compassion.

Far from being a tabula rasa, we are born with both ‘hardware’ – the brain and the nervous system – and a degree of ‘software’ – the ‘experiences’ we have had since conception, both of which contribute to us being the person that we now know ourselves to be.

The Hardware

As I have said in a previous post, at the moment of our conception, a seed is created – the seed that grows into the person we become. This seed provides us with the genetic material (DNA): the potentials that we have – in computer terms, the ‘hardware’ of our human selves. However, we now know that there is more to being human than genes, and there is ongoing debate – some of it very heated – as to what it is that causes us to become the person that we do: is it nature or nurture? Can we put things down to genes, or not – genes can be very convenient, because if we can blame our genes (or, as more often happens, if someone else can), we don’t have to take responsibility (have a look at Gabor Mate talking about addiction not being inherited through our genes)! It’s not our fault, and nothing can be done – a very depressing view in my opinion.

The Software

To extend the computer analogy a bit further, the seed is then exposed to nurture – whatever that may mean in any particular case – the ‘software’ programs that are slowly loaded into our brains over the days weeks, months and years after conception (see previous post). However, unlike computer hardware which is unchanging over time (the analogy falls apart here), we now know that nurture can have a dramatic effect not only on the way in which our brain is wired (our thoughts and feelings), causing the actual structure of our brains to change (which is why the brain is described as being ‘plastic’), but also on the genes themselves, and there is now evidence to suggest that some of these changes in the hardware may even be passed on from one generation to the next.

This last point is a reference to the phenomenon known as ‘epigenetics': a scientific explanation of how nurture can affect nature. Two of the foremost experts on the subject of epigenetics are Bruce Lipton – an extremely enthusiastic and well-informed clinician, who can explain the theory better than I can – and Michael Meaney, who writes very clearly (and, most importantly, optimistically) on the subject (see post). I have also just found this brilliant and entertaining explanation on Youtube (sorry about the ad at the beginning), but I will give you the basics:

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Epigenetics in a nutshell

We inherit our genes from each of our parents, but what happens in our environment affects those genes, so that they may, or may not be expressed. Thus if identical twins inherit the gene for a particular health problem, but are separated at birth, and one twin is brought up in an unhappy and violent environment, and has no attachment to his mother figure, whereas the other twin is brought up in a ‘good enough’ family, and has a secure attachment to his mother figure, the gene will be expressed in the first twin, and not in the second. The first twin’s brain will have been flooded with cortisol, and other chemicals that are detrimental to his health, and is thus more likely to experience the particular health issue for which he carries the gene, whereas the second twin will have had positive chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine flowing through his brain, and is less likely to develop the health problem.

The ACE study

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This brings me back to the ACE study, because it seems to me that the ACE study is epigenetics brought to life – we have ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’, which make us more prone to developing not only mental, but physical health problems as well. It is the environment that has brought about these problems, not just our genes, as might have been assumed in the past, and the ACE study proves this beyond all possible doubt.

You might like to have a look at the ten questions in the ACE study, and see what your score is – you may be surprised! If we look at the questions closely, we can see that each question relates either to abuse or neglect – either of us directly, or of those closest to us, which caused them to be unable to meet our needs (as I have said before, no blame can be attached to these findings, because our carers will also have had their own experience of abuse or neglect which caused them to be unable to care for us appropriately in the first place).

My experience of working with young people in the UK (where few children have been exposed to traumas such as war, tsunamis, or other natural disasters), tells me that mental health problems are largely caused by either neglect, or abuse, or both – I have observed that where there is neglect, there is often an opportunity for abuse, because no one has the safety and well-being of the child in mind.

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Core shame

The ACE study brings me back to core shame, as the two are, I believe, closely connected – the life circumstances that cause us to have a high score on the ACE study are very similar to those which might lead to core shame, and thus to the physical and mental health problems documented in the study, since both are an indication of the extent to which a child has (or has not), been genuinely loved, cherished and respected.

There is one question that I consider to be highly significant, and which I was certain was included (were you raised by at least one of your natural parents), but it isn’t, so I contacted the ACE study website, who explained that these ten questions are their original version, and other people have added other questions. I, for one, would want to include that question!

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The good news – we can recover:)

Having said all of this, I want to make it clear that whatever our history, there is the possibility of change – change for the better. The brain is plastic, as I said earlier, and once we become aware of, and acknowledge (some people find this hard), what has happened to us, we can take steps to change the path we are on, and thus, change our future. Epigenetics teaches us that our environment can affect our genes, so that if we make positive changes in our environment, we can alter the effect it is having on those same genes. We are not condemned to a life of physical or mental illness – we can take steps in the present to change the future, but it takes time, and appropriate support, and the earlier we start to make changes, the easier it is to make them.

I don’t agree with the old saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ – you can, but it takes longer to rewire the brain of an ‘old dog’ than that of a ‘young dog’! Prevention is best – we must heed the warnings of the ACE study, and act on them as a society – but early intervention is good too, so the sooner we realise that we (or our children) have problems, the sooner we can put things right.

And finally, another nugget of gold on compassion from Emma Seppala – I wonder when she sleeps?????

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