Brains are for two things: pursue life and avoid death. On an ongoing basis, they need the will to pursue food, drinks, mates, whatever makes us live. After spurts of saving us from the claws of death, they need to calm back down and get on with the business of life. The settings “will to live” and “calm back down” are mainly hardwired during childhood when our genes interact with our environment (our caregivers, in the first years) to shape our brain.
Let’s be clear: it is fiendishly difficult for humanity to deliver on these two simple needs that every new generation has from the older one: a solid base from which to explore the world, and safe haven from stress. Two brilliant Marias, born fourty years apart, explained why.Looking at infants up to one or two years old, Dr. Mary Ainsworth explained how the relationships infants have with their caregivers shapes their personality. An optimal attachment relationship – which she called “secure”- arises with sensitive, responsive and warm caregiving. Shockingly, secure attachment is only observed in about 50 — 60% of children in the US. Although it does not require intellect, attentive attunement to all aspects of a child is an extremely demanding task, both physically and emotionally.
Focusing on children aged three and above, Dr. Maria Montessori explained that, like gardeners, caregivers do best when focusing on the environment, rather than on forging children’s minds into a desired outcome. If the climate is controlled, and the soil fertilized, the little creative minds will blossom driven by an internal force. But how does one shield a child from sterile, stormy or chaotic home climates? Shockingly again, only about one third of children are exempt of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Parents aren’t usually told how immense the developing brains’ needs are. They didn’t seem immense when, for centuries in traditional societies, they were usually shared among half a dozen people or more. Now that they mostly fall on one or two in industrialized societies, they cannot be anything less than overwhelming.
Not meeting their needs is a risk factor for emotional and cognitive stunting, mental disorder and health conditions. Those dysregulated children – probably the majority – will need to overcome a lot to become autonomous, confident and trusting human beings, capable of flourishing in work and love.
Look around you. How collaborative is the society – in other words how high do the brain pyramids get? Are there large organizations, or is it mostly fragmented mom-and-pop shops? Why is that – what are most people’s “brain shapes”? Does upbringing and the dominant culture favor curiosity and skill? Does it foster trust in others and self confidence? Psychology seems to affect economy, it is not only the other way around.