Saturday, 25 August 2012

Monkey therapists

My individual project for the M.Sc. is not something I came up with myself, but something I was allocated. One of the things it involves is reading up on Attachment Theory, which makes me a bit sad. Apparently babies are born with the part of the brain which deals with terror in place, but without the bit of the brain which you use when you calm down. They need adults around to act as that part of the brain for them, until they're old enough to grow that bit for themselves. (I think that's when they're around two years old.) A small child that doesn't have interactions with a nice sensible adult brain won't be able to grow that part of their brain properly. They have missed out on something almost as important as food.

It's interesting stuff. I think we're all used to the idea of the brain as a huge set of connections between neurons. I wasn't aware before of the idea of the brain as only one brain among many, only able to develop its own internal connections through its interactions with other external brains. On the one hand it's quite cheering because there seems to be a general anxiety around about parenthood, and all the parents I know are succeeding hugely in ways they may not even be aware of. On the other hand learning about it is depressing because it involves learning about what happens when it goes wrong. This means lots of sad stories of terrible things happening to toddlers so that they grow up without a part of their brain, and a certain amount of systematic cruelty to baby monkeys to see how they cope with it. They did experiments where they gave baby monkeys all the food etc that they needed but replaced their mothers with stuffed toys. Said monkeys, when introduced to other monkeys, could not cope at all, and acted in ways described as "autistic". Poor monkeys. There was another interesting experiment where they gave the "autistic" young adult monkeys other monkeys as therapists. The monkey therapists were half the age of the damaged monkeys, and their incessant demanding need for social interaction was able to break through the damaged monkeys' isolation and socialise them, so that they were all later able to join monkey society together. Which is something, I suppose. Because the human brain stays changeable for much longer than people used to think -- you can make significant new pathways even late in life -- those who missed out as toddlers could probably be helped by carefully directed therapies.

(I often wonder, what does it do to the development of the brains of the people who do this to monkeys? The discovery of long-term neuroplasticity means that it could quite feasibly alter the adult brain. I don't know if anyone's studied the neuroscientific and psychological effects of cruelty to animals being part of your job. I'd have though it could be as bad as second-hand smoke.)

The literature on the subject is a little annoying because of its tendency to see this as the entire deal. It may be true that you can induce autistic-like behaviour in a child just by how you treat it -- thankfully no one has tried this but they assume they can because of their afore-mentioned successes with monkeys -- but that doesn't change the fact that there are children out there who have actual autism. It certainly doesn't mean their parents don't play with them, and it does seem to have a large genetic component. And they're very sexist -- everything is mother this, mother that, and I read a formal interview where one of them was asked about this and he implied that when a father looks after a baby the father has a different emotional gender from his physical one. Attachment theory has been used as another stick to beat women around the head with, by people who think they should stay home and gurgle at their babies instead of going out to work. It's not just unfair on the mothers, it's unfair on fathers and men in general too. My brother is certainly part of his small children's emotional framework, and when my dad (who is a softy) spends ages pulling faces at his little grand-daughter and bouncing her on his knee I'm sure that's helping her brain to develop.

While I'm on depressing subjects I recently read a thing (as part of a book review in the Literary Review) which said that the Japanese were already gearing up to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It said that this was partly because the terrible conventional bombing campaigns were having a massive effect, but also because the Red Army was invading Manchuria, and the Japanese knew they couldn't face the military power of enormous Russia. It said that the Americans knew this and that the point of dropping the bombs was not to force a surrender which was already on its way, but to hasten the surrender to limit the inevitable land gains which the Soviets were about to make in the Far East. In this reading the "shorten the war by five years and save innumerable lives" justification was knowing bullshit and the real reason was about the post-war political map. Ouch ouch ouch. Part of me wants to follow this up and see what the evidence is for and against, while part of me dreads doing that.

1 comment:

  1. That's rather a traumatic subject to be allocated. I'm no expert, but from observation I think you can tell from a very early age (say 18 months) the children who haven't had a lot of positive interaction; and you wonder how on earth they're going to catch up when they get into a school environment after another 3 years.