Brain Science 3, Or: Fear

Noting that brain scientists have long ignored the feelings and emotions, the emotion that figures most prominently in Huther’s discussion of the brain is the one that lies at the root of the fight/flight response: fear. Fear, for Huther, can produce a disequilibrium in the brain; it is a state of extreme stress. The ability of the individual to deal with this feeling is determined primarily in the first year of life:

There are children who enter this world with much more fear than others. And there are children, who following their birth, encounter conditions that are not conducive to developing a sense of security. These children have less confidence than others about their ability to eliminate a a disturbance to their inner balance through their own efforts and with the help of their mother–and less confident that they can share their joy over this successful enterprise with her. There are psychologically disturbed mothers, immature mothers, unhappy and discontented mothers, insecure and fearful mothers who are plagued with self-doubt, moody and fickle mothers, overly self-centered mothers or mothers who are overly controlled by others.

Children who enter the world with an excess of fear or children whose nurturing (environment) is inadequate can and do develop what Huther calls “Defective Installations,” brain networks that allow the child to deal with the fear but in ways that make their responses to the world “one-sided.” Once a child has developed such a one sided coping strategy there is little hope that he or she will abandon it in later life with the consequence that he or she will cease in large part to be capable of continued development. He or she is stuck.

I don’t know that Huther has read any psychoanalysis but the conclusions he reaches remarkably resemble those psychoanalysts reached some 80 years ago by means other than cutting up the brains of rats.

In her “Our Inner Conflicts,” Karen Horney, for examples, writes of the “basic conflict” and those environment factors that can produce a “defective” response to that conflict:

A wide range of adverse factors in the environment can produce this insecurity [basic anxiety] in a child: direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, upkept promises, hostile environment and so on and so on.

Horney continues:

Harassed by these daunting conditions, the child gropes for ways to keep going, ways to cope with this menacing world…. In doing so, he develops not only ad hoc strategies but last character trends which become part of his personality. I have called these “neurotic trends.”

One sided development or neurotic trends. Take your pick. In either case, the child becomes stuck and doomed to follow in the same rut for the rest of its life.

Brain Science 2; Or, What Is Huther onto?

So what is Huther onto (see previous entry)?

In summary:

For decades the presumption was that the neuronal pathways and synaptic connections established during the brain’s initial development were immutable. Today we know that the brain is capable throughout our lifetimes of adaptively modifying and reorganizing the connective pathways that it has laid down, and that the development and consolidation of these pathways depends in quite a major way on how we use our brain and what for.

So what does this mean in some larger sense. Well, it means the structure of any particular brain….and one can only study particular brains…may well not be the structure of any other brain with the consequence that locating an immutable DNA conditioned structure is difficult, if not down right impossible. Certainly down there somewhere is a structure determined by DNA but “overlaying” that structure are all the structures or networks that arise from the inter-relation of the organism with its environment.

Huther writes:

A few years ago, no researcher in the field of brain science could have conceived the possibility that what we experience could be capable of changing the structure of the brain in any way. Today most scientists who study the brain are convinced that the experiences of our lives do become structurally anchored in the brain.

This notion that experiences themselves can “program” the brain or create structures provides some “scientific” proof for the process of socialization…that sociologists talk so much about. We learn, it might be said, from experience when those experiences create a new structure or reprogram the brain in some way.

Consequently, Huther argues that human beings did not develop big brains so that they might think or reason but so that they might become socialized. He writes: “Our brain is thus much more a social organ than it is a thinking organ.”

The brain of course is not equally open at all stages of development to being reprogrammed through experience (as the interaction of the organism with it environment). Rather, more like Freud than not, Huther suggests that the most profound and possibly unalterable experiential reprogramming occurs during the first year of life. Reprogramming or possibly first programming at this level is so profound, so obdurate that structures produce by it may appear DNA determined. They are not however and possibly because they are not Huther proposes as a kind of ideal brain one that is not boxed in by its early experiences but capable across the whole life cycle of learning (being reprogrammed by experience).

Very few and relatively rare individuals however achieve this brain ideal. Rather, to use Huther’s phrase, most of us develop brains that are in one way or another “one-sided” and relatively unopen to alteration. To address this problem he suggests scientists should expend less energy on asking how the brain is structure and more on how the brain is used, for how we use the brain is what determines whether “…the potentialities built into it can really be fully actualized.”