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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on