Health: All you need is love

The brain, our most complex organ, is physically moulded by life experiences, both good and bad - so why not try a little tenderness.

The past 10 years have seen a revolution in understanding how the human brain works. Far from being purely genetically hard-wired at birth, our genes have endowed our brains with the capacity to be physically moulded by what we do, think, sense and feel. And this capacity for mind sculpture has very important implications for health and human potential.

Stressful experiences can sculpt the brain too. Deep below the cortex, two almond shaped parts of the brain - the amygdala - detect danger in a split second and take over command of the brain, forcing you into action in times of perceived danger. The amygdala is part of the brain's emotional system - the limbic system. When you hear, see, feel or smell something, this information passes both to the cortex and to the amygdala. In fact, it gets to the amygdala before it reaches other parts of the brain. And if what you sense has been linked with danger, the amygdala springs into action.

This is because the amygdala functions as a kind of storehouse of emotional memories, and these memories and reactions are physically embroidered into the brain's wiring. Such changes in the emotional parts of the brain can be very hard to reverse through new learning, which is why it can be hard to overcome phobias and other emotional disorders that are so common.

But they can be overcome through scientifically-proven psychological therapies such as behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy. One particularly disabling psychological condition is obsessive-compulsive disorder. People suffering from this can feel a compulsion to perform repetitive rituals, such as washing their hands many times a day; this is often accompanied by a fear of contamination from touching anything.

A familiar treatment for OCD involves exposing the person to the stimuli which trigger the rituals - for instance touching a "dirty" object. Although it is stressful at first, after a while it becomes less distressing and they discover a new freedom in their lives. This behaviour therapy has been shown to physically sculpt and change the brains of people with obsessive- compulsive disorder, and these brain changes go hand in hand with the improvements in their mental functioning and behaviour.

People given behaviour therapy showed a beneficially reduced activity in a part of the brain known as the caudate nucleus, which is closely involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So therapy that involves no drugs or physical treatment can change your brain. This has only been shown directly in the treatment of obsessive- compulsive disorder, in the parts of the brain linked to this condition. It's very likely, however, that similar changes would follow successful psychological treatment of other emotional disorders.

Part of the stress reaction triggered by the amygdala and other brain regions is to release steroid stress hormones into the blood. While these are essential fuel for fast responding to emergencies, if stress is excessive or prolonged, stress-related changes in brain chemistry can be harmful to brain cells, particularly in a part of the brain responsible for learning and day-to-day memory - the hippocampus. We need the hippocampus to remember what we did this morning, to remember the name of a new business contact or to recall what we were told five minutes before.

Stress, if it is severe or prolonged, can cause the neurones in the hippocampus to shrink, though they usually spring back into shape once the stress is lifted. It is likely that the problems with memory and concentration that people often experience during periods of stress are partly caused by this temporary stress-sculpture of the brain.

In very severe cases of stress these brain changes can be permanent. Some survivors of firefights in the Vietnam War who suffered post-traumatic stress were found later to have shrunken hippocampuses and poor memory. People who have suffered repeated abuse as children can also suffer the same kind of brain change because of their traumatic experiences.

This damage to the brain in turn makes it harder to cope with new stresses and difficulties that life throws up. This creates more stress and may shrink further the trembling web of brain connections in the memory and other cognitive systems. For young children brought up in harsh, stressful environments, these corrosive effects of stress on the brain can sap their ability to learn and prevent their intelligence developing fully.

In Washington DC, for instance, 9 per cent of six and seven-year olds in one deprived neighbourhood had witnessed someone being shot. A further 13 per cent had seen someone being stabbed, while a staggering 16 per cent had seen a dead body on the street. And witnessing muggings was commonplace - a quarter of these little children had seen one taking place. Stress of this type is likely to have profound effects on the minds of these children, as well as physical effects on the brains of at least some of them.

One of the best antidotes to the corrosive effects of too much stress is love and affection. When young mice are regularly stroked gently on the back with a soft, dry paintbrush, beneficial changes in their brain chemistry result, of a type likely to promote positive cognitive and emotional development in important brain centres. It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that children deprived of cuddles and a close emotional relationship to one or more adults, show brains and bodies that are stunted. A few years ago our TV screens showed harrowing images of Romanian orphanages, a legacy of the Ceauc- escu regime. The pictures of row upon row of dull- eyed orphans sitting in bare, dirty rooms still haunts many people. In the better Romanian orphanages, the children are reasonably well fed, clean and are allowed access to the fresh air. What they too often lack, however, is much more important, namely the brain-nurturing interchange with a loving adult who learns to understand and respond to them.

But it is not just in Romania that children can be deprived of such essential mind and brain sculpture. In the Eighties, a group of researchers studied children in London who had gone into institutional care before the age of two, and left again sometime over the next five years. Though the children were given very good physical care, as well as decent mental and verbal stimulation, what they didn't get was a close relationship with one or two adults. Rather, they were looked after by an army of different staff - 50 on average over the course of their stay.

It is, of course, impossible for 50 different people to form the close relationship that a young child needs. So, it is not surprising to find that, in one study, a third of women who had been in institutions as children were psychiatrically ill by the time they were adults. In contrast, only one in 20 women who hadn't been in institutions as children were psychiatrically ill.

And these adult women who had experienced such poor emotional care as children tended to become poor mothers, lacking in warmth, harsh with their children and showing inconsistency and poor control over them. Thus, before our eyes we see not only faulty mind sculpture within a generation, but also between different generations.

The news was not all bleak, however. Some of these women who had had terrible early experiences actually became good parents themselves, and these tended to be the ones who had met a partner they could count on to help them, and in whom they could confide.

In short, loving relationships can help break the transmission of faulty mind sculpture across generations, as well as help to protect against the corrosive effects of stress.

`Mind Sculpture: your brain's untapped potential' by Ian Robertson will be published this week by Bantam Press, pounds 13.99

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect