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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable