Beginning a Self
It is impossible to “learn what we know” about any part of our childhood that remains to trouble us without first considering recent developments within the field of neuroscience. While we all intuitively know that an infant’s brain is far from developed when it is born, yet very few of us have ever pondered what that exactly means — not only in regard to our own children we may be raising or may have already raised — but more importantly what it means in regard to the development we each went through ourselves.
In order to truly understand what may be bothering us about ourselves and our lives in the present, we have to move our minds so far back in our own life that we begin at what we all know was the beginning: our birth. Yes, there are many circumstances and events, as well as personal experiences, that occurred in our lives before our birth. I cannot begin myself to understand things on that level at this time. So what I want us to consider is the following, written by neuroscientist Dr. David Siegel. Please read this carefully!
“Action, learning, and development can be viewed as interrelated sets of phenomena throughout life. For infants, interactions with the environment are driven by the emergence of the increasingly complex capacities of their brains to represent the world around them. The inborn aspects of the value system are in place from the beginning of life, but the system is also shaped by learning from experience. For example, a child will naturally make eye contact with a parent as a “good” interaction. However, if such eye contact results in her being overwhelmed and intruded upon by the actions of the parent, then such interactions may become associated with a negative value. The child learns that eye contact should be avoided. The brain can learn to modify its response to the evaluative system’s initial criteria of what is good or bad, based on past interactions with others. If past eye contact leads to a flood of disorganizing activations, the avoidance of such experiences in the future will help keep the self organized. (siegel/tdm/139)” copied to dissoc, brain, self, disorien notes)
(An infant’s brain/mind is not organized initially….see other statement by siegel…that it is in chaos. So it is not, early on, about keeping the self organized…..there is no organized self, so therefore there is no self! And if these experiences of eye contact with its caregivers are naturally meant to teach an infant to moderate and regulate the chaos of the brain-mind they were born with, then without being able to make eye contact….what is there to do that job? Sstay in a state of chaos?)
this paragraph directly follows the one above
“The appraisal of stimuli and the creation of meaning are central functions of the mind that occur with the arousal process of emotion. Incoming stimuli are appraised for their value, and the representations of these stimuli are then linked with a sense of “goodness” or “badness.” As the child develops, the increasingly complex representational system becomes capable of more subtle evaluative sensations. These variations on the “good or bad” theme are what lead to the wide variety of emotions we are capable of feeling. We are unique individuals precisely because both our value systems and our interactional histories are one-of-a-kind combinations. As the intertwined nature of value system responses and environmental encounters unfolds, each of us continually emerges and defines ourselves. (siegel/tdm/139)”
What does this mean in light of infant abuse? It means that when an infant is being cared for by a mother who has to hate it because her brain-mind-self was so damaged in her own infancy, the infant is left essentially all alone with an undeveloped brain that is supposed to be able to organize itself through eye to eye contact with this person who is supposed to be organized herself but isn’t!
I know this is a difficult idea to wrap our minds around in the present. But if this happened to us when we were infants, we HAVE to try to understand it. We don’t KNOW anything when we are born. We just have a few primary biological and physical abilities and some fundamental brain circuits that we begin to use to begin to organize the very undeveloped brain we were born with. We are born with brain organizational potential and we are born with feelings, but without adequate interactions with attuned caregivers the chaos of our beginning mind cannot sort itself out properly.
The way our caregivers interact with us mirrors back to us our feelings, and through the process of these caregivers attuning themselves to our infantile feeling states, we begin to make order out of chaos. We begin to know what a feeling is and we begin to know that feeling is us – our self. This is supposed to be a safe orderly process. But when an infant is born into a severely abusive environment, it is not.
And because an infant’s brain is building itself moment by moment – forming its associations, pathways, circuitry – literally BY and WITH every experience and interaction it has with the people around it, if there is trauma it directly affects the formation of the infant’s brain. And what is in the brain will not only determine what will be in the mind of the individual but also how the brain and mind will function. Proper order and organization of a brain-mind-self does not just magically and suddenly appear somewhere down the road from infancy. It has to be put there. And it is literally put there by the nature of the interactions it has with its early caregivers.
If an infant is terrorized directly by its early caregivers, or if the interactions are sporadic and not adequate, or if the infant’s brain development needs are not met by neglect, what we will see at the end of the process is basically a mess.
We do not get an operational vehicle, a wearable outfit, an edible dinner, or a well-balanced and peaceful person at the end of a process when the parts were assembled in a random or haphazard way. An individual will not be able to make good decisions, or have good relationships, or make good plans for their lives if their brains were built with pain.
Being abused, neglected or maltreated is painful. Infants are not meant to be hurt. But it happens. When it happens, the experiences are engraved within the forming structure of the infant’s brain as if they were carved in stone. When such experiences are repeated and repeated, they form permanent alterations in the way the infant’s brain not only functions in its infancy, but these engrained patterns of painful experience will form the foundation for every other action the brain accomplishes within itself for the rest of the infant’s life.
An infant is not automatically a miniature adult wrapped in an infant’s fragile body. The adult that an infant will become is being physically formed not only with the food that it is being fed, but by the interactions its caregivers are having with its brain. They feed the infant’s brain with the way they do or do not respond to it. It is very very simple: cherished infants who are treated in a precious manner, that are mentally and emotionally cared for, will become happy well adjusted adults who have balanced brains that are ordered and organized to operate peacefully, harmoniously and productively which results in a lifetime of well-being. Parents and caregivers who are troubled because they were themselves raised by troubled parents who troubled them, will directly pass this trouble down to their offspring.
My mother always said that trouble was my middle name. What I know now is that she was the trouble in my life, not the other way around. And what I also know is that someone so troubled her in her infancy and ensuing childhood that she had no choice but to trouble me. Once the innate capacity of a newborn’s brain to distinguish good from bad, which initially operates through direct contact with first caregivers — through eye to eye contact and facial expressions, and then through voice intonation and body language – is shattered, a shattered mind will follow from the building of a shattered brain.