Many people talk about how important the mother-infant bond is, but how many of us can really understand what it means to ourselves? We know that it clearly is critical for the baby’s survival during the first few months of life. What is its role in preparing a person early in life for becoming a social human being? What are the benefits to both the baby and the mother for having this bond? How is it represented in the brain? Why is there a narrow window of opportunity, only three years, for it to form? Why can’t the mother make up for its lack later in life? What are the individual steps in bond formation that must be taken during very short periods of time within that three-year period, and why? What happens to the social development of a child who never forms that bond with the mother?
Why This Bond Is Needed
The most critical years for developing the skills to survive within our social species are in the first three years of life because the brain undergoes most of the development of critical circuits at this time. If you consider the importance of suckling, expression of need and satisfaction, learning to sit upright, crawl, walk, toilet training, how to dress oneself, how to run and hide when needed, and the need for developing language well enough to communicate with one’s family, then clearly the brain circuitry developing at this time forms a “baseline” circuitry.
The mother-infant bond is forming within this scenario so that bond and brain development are completely intertwined. If the mother cannot accept her baby within this time, then we will see problems in any of the abilities mentioned above, as well as all actions depending upon this baseline circuitry. Learning any other skill depends upon this baseline, so the rejected child will have to find other ways to achieve what normal children can do, and that is usually not easy for the rejected child. One of the most common problems they will have is one of attachment disorder–the inability to form a social attachment or bond.
Representation In the Brain
Our brains are made up of neurons which are “turned on” by a signal from another neuron. The strength of that signal, combined with all the other signals which reach this neuron at the same time, adds up to a level which must pass a threshold filter before it causes the receiving neuron to signal another neuron. This behavior of a neuron describes its activity within a circuit. We must realize that everything we do, think about, analyze, or decide upon depends upon the “dots and dashes” of this neural circuitry. Our minds are not some vapor which condenses on the brain and tells it what to do. It cannot exist without the anatomical representation of every aspect of our existence in our brains. So let us translate those “dots and dashes” to social interactions.
I think that the brain assigns a cell to represent each person we meet in our lives. I go into detail about this theory below under “What the Mother-Infant Bond Does to the Brain”. The cell representing the mother is the first one to have to play a role in our own physiological responses to any social interaction, as well as that with the environment around us. The father and siblings come soon afterward, if they exist in the same environment. Their role in the brain will be important in many steps the brain takes to reach a final decision in its response to anything. The nervous system includes these cells in circuitry which determines every response which involves them, whether they are present or not, e.g. whenever we consciously and/or unconsciously think about a past event involving them. These decisions may include situations like the following:
- deciding to look toward their bedroom as we pass,
- hear a noise in the house,
- feel the rush of air as the door opens,
- think about that book we borrowed from them,
- feel anger when we look at the rug they hated (even if the event happened so long ago we have “forgotten” all about it),
- eat eggs with bread (mom liked these together).
All of these events may not trigger any conscious thought about a person at all, but that person’s cell in our brains will be involved in those circuits. The conclusion we draw about that person results from a kind of behavioral “transactional analysis”. The additive value of a person’s cell being triggered in our brains is what determines their rank of importance to us. In which circuits that person’s cell plays a role determines the quality of that representation of the person in our brains.
So if circuits involving our anger or discomfort (all the physiological and emotional aspects, and processes involving conscious and unconscious thought, learning, prediction, analysis, and corroboration) are associated with a person, then the number of times that cell is tapped tells us the importance of that person to us. The quality of that person in our lives may be deemed poorer than that of someone who is predominantly associated with satisfying, pleasing, or more comfortable events. So if a person’s cell is not tapped often, but only has pleasant associations, that person may be more welcome to us than a sibling who figures so many more times in any process in the brain, but who is associated with far more bad experiences.
How That Bond Feels To Us
A rejected child will feel very differently about his/her mother. As a result, every time someone speaks of a mother, the rejected child will think, both consciously and unconsciously, of his/her own mother. The feelings the speaker is calling up are never really understood by the rejected child.
The PBS TV episode of “Call the Midwife” which aired on 21 April 2013 was about a mother having difficulty bonding with her infant born with spina bifida. At the time in Great Britain no one knew what caused spina bifida and the myth that eating green potatoes caused it had been debunked. However, they did know that potatoes were linked somehow. Potatoes have since been found to be high in folic acid, which prevented spina bifida. The epidemic of spina bifida in Ireland was clearly related to the great potato famine because the Irish poor, who had no other source of folic acid, lost their staple food.
They also told the story of a young woman, Jane, who was trained as a midwife who joined the group at Nonnatus House in the 2013 season. She had grown up in the orphanage where many children went because their mothers did not want them. She showed a lot of symptoms of being abandoned–tremendous fear of anyone, not being able to speak much at all, difficulty in interacting with anyone (a characteristic of rejected children showing PTSD).
There was an Anglican priest who came to live there until his new parish building was finished. He talked all the time, driving the occupants up a wall, although they were too polite to tell him, and he often felt embarrassed, knowing that his talk drove people away. He asks Jane to a dance, who finally accepts but who backs out at the last minute, feeling too afraid to even talk to him about it, going back to her room where she cried herself to sleep. The two finally get together at the end, because he tells her that he learned to talk so much, just to fill in the silences between his two warring parents when he was a child. There are some aspects of this episode that seemed to hit right on the effects of the lack of a mother-infant bond, but some, I am sure, filled in interactions and behavior made up by both the original author of the book and the theatrical team, simply because most people have no idea what it really means to an unwanted child.
A Personal Story
I grew up in a family who got farther and farther away from reality when it came to me. Since I had moved as far as I could to get away from a very dysfunctional family, when I came to visit them, I stayed with each of them separately in their homes during my visit. Every time I returned for a visit, I felt more and more like I was stepping onto a different planet. I could not figure out who they thought I was. It never made any sense. They seemed to forget all the things they should have learned each time I visited each of them separately, staying in their houses, and interacting with them for a couple of days. I could see them change in their interaction with me during my stay and I thought they were beginning to know me each time. But I was always disappointed in their response when they got together as a group and attacked me.
I always got the impression that when they were speaking to me, that they were actually looking past me to some image in the background that I could not see. The experience would leave me reeling. I did not realize until later that the feeling I had was a reality. They would only listen to me as long as they could to discover a weakness, a need that any family member should be happy to fill, but instead, it would just confirm the image they had of me inside their brains which had not changed since they were five years old.. I would discover this every time they decided to verbally attack me. Their attitude seemed to be “how dare you to think you are a member of this family?”
So this episode of ‘Call the Midwife’ mirrored this distance. In order for people to realize how important that mother-infant bond was to them, throughout their lives, they have to think about their feelings toward their mothers and compare them with what they felt toward a father, sibling, and friend, situation by situation. They have to recall certain events where they could expect a different behavior from their mothers than they would get from their friends, and different from their siblings. Recall of those events would usually confirm this conclusion.
A conclusion about these feelings might be one a conscious thought pattern would reach, that the reason the mother would behave differently, and feelings of a child toward the mother should be different is that she knows her child best. The unconscious brain operates slightly differently, and that is where the beginnings of the social bond lie. A person’s feelings are based upon the fact that the brain handles representation of the mother, father, siblings and friends differently, and both the conscious and unconscious brain play a role in that representation.
I found out what my mother had done to me as a baby only one week after my mother’s funeral, two weeks after her death, the night I got back to my home. I was using mind-body techniques to get rid of symptoms of toxic poisoning, which I had not yet realized were all related to what my mother had done to me (personal examples at Mindfulness Techniques, and Using MRT: Recovering From Trauma). I learned about this trauma only because I was increasingly asking more detailed questions of my brain, using MRT, (or Applied Kinesiology), when I was treating another symptom, another panic attack. I could finally just sit and think, after a very long day of traveling. I found out that the panic attack had come because another toxin was moving inside me. I finally asked more questions about the moment the toxin had entered me, and the walls around those memories started to crumble.
That exposure exposure to toxins happened when I was very young, three days old, and I was sitting in my baby carrier, on the bathroom floor. An image of my mother standing at the sink came to mind. She wore those heavy, low-heeled shoes and the mid-calf length 1950s dress. Her skirt was swishing because she was scrubbing the sink hard. The water was running periodically. I was curious, so I asked if the cleaner she was using had the toxin in it.
So had she washed the floor with the toxin, or the bathtub, or the toilet?
“No,” to each.
The word “bottles” came to mind. Where were they? On the floor. So I assumed they all had their caps on.
But I felt uncomfortable, so I asked if the caps had been off.
With a series of questions, I realized that Mom had put me into the bathroom with the door and window closed, with the caps off those three bottles. The emotion hit me just before those series of questions and I started to cry before I realized consciously what she did. With more answers to my questions, I learned she had purposely done this to me, that she intended to kill me, slowly, so that no one could possibly figure out why I had died. The shock of that memory hit me often over the next three weeks which caused a crying spell each time, along with a feeling of deep despair.
I finally asked that night, using MRT, if my brain knew she had tried to kill me all that time. Yes and no.
Only weeks before her death, my brain found out that she had that intent, but of course, needed my conscious brain to figure out why. I asked why, but of course, I could only sit and cry because it cannot answer a “why” question.
At the time, I was only beginning realize how the unconscious thoughts push into consciousness, as concepts, single words, flashes of images, a sound. I had to learn better to just let them come and the answer to “why” questions can be reached.
It suddenly dawned on me to ask, “Was it because you did not want to hurt me with the truth?”
Then it dawned on me, it was because the brain knew I would ask her about it. It was because I would hurt HER. At that time, I realized that I never would have wanted to hurt her to the point that she could die because of the guilt and shame she felt about her intent.
The Social Brain and the Mother-Infant Bond
The social brain is incorporated into the mother-infant bond.
On reflection much later, the conclusion I had reached as stated above, about how my brain did not want to hurt my mother, is probably a bit too simple, relying heavily on the logic of the conscious, analytic brain. The brain comes to a conclusion often as a way to protect the body and help it to survive. That is all. So many of the conscious conclusions we reach are at the level of making a social interaction better, often with the idea that others benefit, not necessarily ourselves. However that may be, what we consciously think, everything we do, is actually done for our own survival. This narcissism doesn’t make sense when we are raised to not express it in our social interactions.
A large amount of behavioral ecological research on altruism seems to run against this conclusion of survival of oneself in a social species. Most theorists believe that altruism evolved for the survival of individuals genetically related to us or of social significance to us. However, based upon knowledge of how the brain works, altruism may have evolved for the survival of the altruist as well. Because the evolution of the social bond was so successful for our species and for all other social species, it only makes sense to put into it a circuitry with satiety points triggered when the social bond is strengthened. This can happen precisely during an altruistic act. Reaching satiety with a social condition then is incorporated into other circuits controlling our own physiology of survival.
Brains of social species are anatomically arranged for social interaction. The mirror system of cells in the brain helps the person imagine how others might feel in conditions to his/her own. This system is intrinsic to critical circuitry of all vertebrate brains because it allows the brain’s owner to assume that others will react similarly to the viewer in the same situation. Being able to predict the response of others is necessary for the survival of all vertebrates, not just social ones, because it allows a predator to out-think its prey, a prey to out-think its predator, an individual to know when and where to find a mate who is receptive. In a social species, it plays a role in gauging how to approach a con-specific, how to work as a team, how to successfully raise a baby to adulthood, how to learn some things very quickly, and countless other evolutionarily important behaviors.
Understanding both altruism and the mirror system from these perspectives can help the reader to understand the shame and guilt of the rejected child and why the mother might continue to attack that child. A rejected child feels enormous shame and guilt for just existing, because he/she was made to feel that shame when the mother saw or heard the child. The only way the child can avoid the attack by the mother is to show shame or guilt, which the mother assumes the child shows for doing the specific thing that triggered her anger. She never figures out that she should not have attacked the child at all, simply because she gets satiety when she does, and only more irritated when she doesn’t.
Both people in the mother-infant interaction thus develop some rather warped feelings about each other when compared with feelings toward others who don’t do these things in a social bond. My brain might have decided to block my learning about my mother’s attempts to kill me simply because I projected onto her what I would feel when I felt guilt and shame. My mother would not have truly felt as I did, if I had asked her about what happened, because she was not rejected by her mother.
When I was 12, my mother would try to get to know me, to try to make that bond she failed to make with me when I as a baby. However, it was too late. The window of opportunity was gone. And not just for my brain. She still forgot about me as if I was not part of the family. When she first sat me down to talk with me, to ask me what I felt, what I was thinking, I greatly distrusted her. No baby would feel that way with the mother she met at her entrance into the world. Distrust is a major barrier toward establishing a bond. But so is the tremendous desire to get rid of the baby, to ignore her, to deny to oneself she exists. Every mother who has difficulty remembering that the child she rejected is part of the family will continue to deny, at least unconsciously, the existence of that child later in life, despite knowing consciously that the child does exist.
My mother felt guilt and shame about what she did to me, but it would not be accompanied with the same pain that I felt with the guilt and shame for existing. Her pain would occur in specific circumstances when certain people were around or when she was alone. My pain would occur with every feeling of guilt and shame, no matter the circumstance. It would occur with thoughts where I was completely unconscious of the fact that I felt guilt and shame.
Guilt and shame had so blended into my being that I was unaware that no one should be feeling those things when in the same circumstances. My own brain thought of Mom as friend. Thus, I could never do something to her that would make her feel as I did when I felt guilt and shame. My mother’s guilt and shame was only blended in with everything she thought and felt about me, despite the fact that the cell representing me in her brain had only achieved the rank of a friend, not a relative. So my ranking in importance to her was low, regardless of the quality of our interactions many years later.
What the Mother-Infant Bond Does to the Brain
I can only speculate here, based upon self-observations and of others, what the mother-infant bond does to the brain. I also base much of my speculation on what I had to do to establish the baseline circuitry in the brain for a much more fluid social interaction than I was capable of before.
First and foremost, the bond creates a cell representing the baby in the mother’s brain and representing the mother in the baby’s brain. That will occur before the bond is ever formed. However, the concept of “mother” or of “my child” in the brain of the baby, or mother, respectively, develops as a series of cells being designated by the decision-making center in the prefrontal cortex as representative of specific concepts in the unconscious part of the brain, the brainstem.
I suspect that cells representing each of the people in our lives, whether at a single meeting in life or repeated for any length of time, are designated to that position in an area I call the “universe center” of the anterior medulla. I think it lies in the unconscious part of the brain because it has to form in every vertebrate brain, regardless of the presence or lack of cortical development, and because it must be close to the regions which regulate basic physiological responses to the external environment (anything outside of our bodies).
There has been a lot of misinformation in the news about finding a “self” cell in the brain. An article recently published found no representation of the “self” in three areas of the conscious brain, the insula, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortices. Many people erroneously concluded that there was no cellular representation of the “self” in the brain, based upon this research, when the authors themselves do not reach this conclusion. The researchers said that these three areas, which were damaged in the brain of one person, did not show differences from normal people in activities which demand a measure of self-awareness.
I suspect that neuroscientists are not able to find specific cells associated with the “self” because they keep looking for them only in the conscious areas of the brain, in the neocortex. Our consciousness of ourselves as beings may reside there, but not the concept of the self itself, simply because it is a necessary part of the basic circuitry needed for survival.
That being said, there is a strong likelihood that our conscious brains are necessary for the establishment of a sense of self, so that conscious and unconscious parts of the brain have to have a seamless connection during the formation of the sense of self. That seamless connection would be easiest to achieve if it occurs before the massive development of the neocortex occurs, along with its extensive connection to the rest of the brain through many permanent, white fiber tracts that form during this time, the first three years of life.
Philippi, C. L., Feinstein, J. S., Khalsa, S. S., Damasio, A., Tranel, D., Landini, G. . . . Rudrauf, D. (2012). Preserved self-awareness following extensive bilateral brain damage to the insula, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortices. PLoS ONE 7(8), e38413.
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