Our species’s greatest problem is that every new brain needs more attuned care than any parent finds pleasant to give. The proverbial “village” expertly provided this attuned care for the hundreds of thousands of years of our species’ development. Today, with our isolated western lifestyles, we are suffering from what researchers call an “epidemic of neglect.”
A newborn brain has practically all its neurons, yet weighs only 25% of its adult mass. By age three, the connections between its neurons will have sprouted so explosively that the brain will have reached 90% of its adult weight.
What prompts this growth is a constant “serve and return” connection with more mature brains.
This constant, attuned trigger and respond dynamic is exhausting for any one parent or caregiver to provide. It takes at least three secure attachment connections – according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others, quoting studies by Ijzendoorn and Sagi – to reach the voracious needs of our growing brain.
When these connections happen and all goes well, the new brain will end up with a stimulating launching pad for exploration (“secure base”) and a robust regulation mechanism (“safe haven”.)
This doesn’t happen often enough. Only 50-60% of US children have any secure attachments, according to a Princeton study.
The fundamental cause is two-fold. In our species, parents are not as devoted to offspring as our primate cousins. We are ‘strategic investors’, bearing more children than we can raise and investing in them only if we feel reassured that our environment will support us in raising them. The reason we rely on others to raise our young is that we couldn’t possibly give all that these voracious babies need in terms of brain stimulation just by ourselves. Collaborative breeding was most probably – always according to Hrdy – the very trigger of our species intelligence. We are, in other words, caught in an intelligence trap that forces us to rely on mothers AND OTHERS.
Now that most of us bring new little people up in single family lives, with at most two adults present most of the time – but often less than one present for only part of the time – the structural neglect that stems from what Dr Bruce Perry calls “relational poverty” can be crippling.
Many of us find ourselves reaching for a screen as soon as the child’s whining reaches a threshold level. Some of us reach for it as a matter of course, not realizing the harm that is being done. When nothing is happening while something crucial needs to be happening, Dr Gabor Mate calls it “trauma of omission.” Withholding attuned care is as much neglect as withholding food, medical care or education, according to the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study. And it is far more difficult to grow a stunted organ than to repair an injured one.