Early experiences in childhood

Humans have the adaptive potential to be able to survive and live in sub-zero conditions, in oxygen-deprived altitudes and in blistering desert conditions. Humans can also survive and develop while receiving diverse nurturing inputs: loving empathetic care, strict and regimented care, or even abuse and neglect. In each of these different scenarios, the individual will grow up and mature in a different fashion (Music, 2011).

Renee Spitz’s (1945) pioneering studies of “emotional deprivation” in the 1940s highlighted the effects that neglect can have on children. Spitz was a Austrian-American psychoanalyst who specialised in child development and emotional deprivation in infancy. Spitz suggested that neglecting the child from fundamental nurturing needs could lead to serious psychosocial, emotional and physical delays (Spitz, 1945). In trying to prove his hypothesis, Spitz filmed infants who severely lacked emotional and social contact. He filmed children exhibiting distressing behaviours such gawking into space and lying still for long periods with blank expressions.  The evidence Spitz provided was shocking, and pointed towards the emotional difficulties children could ‘develop’ if ‘fundamental input’ is totally lacking.

Spitz’s study highlights the importance of human contact, appropriate interaction and the effect of such experience on a child’s development. Furthermore, it became evident that human relationships have a significant and consequential effect on a child’s development. Such experiences could impact greatly a child’s productivity and ability to contribute effectively to society.

Human relationships and their effect on the brain.

An adult human brain could contain around 100 million brain cells. Each individual neuron in the nervous system is separated by a small gap. These gaps, or synapses, are packed with a variety of chemical material that engage in intricate exchanges that result in synaptic transmissions. It is this transmission that stimulates each neuron to survive and grow and contributes to form the interwoven tapestry of biological, psychological, and social processes that comprise human life (Cozolino, 2006).

Early in postnatal development, the infant’s brain sets off forming new connections, and in so doing it increases remarkably the synaptic density (Blakemore, 2004). Synaptic pruning concurs with the infant’s first taste of human relationships. During this process, frequently used connections are strengthened and unused connections are eliminated. Thus, as the baby grows, brain connections start growing and changing. Which connections survive and which don’t is determined party by genetic factors, and partly by the baby’s experiences.

Clinical Psychologist, Professor Louis Cozolino (2006), argues that the increasingly complex social demands on the brain over time have instigated ever more intricate growth of human neural and synaptic transmissions.  He uses a ‘synaptic’ metaphor to illustrate how human interactions and relationships between people contribute to the building of the intricate system mentioned earlier: “When we smile, wave, and say hello, these behaviours are sent through the space between us via sight and sound.” (Cozolino, 2006. p. 4). “Social synapse”, he asserts, is the space between individuals: between infants and their caretakers, between mother and her child. As individuals relate, their interaction yields ripples, which in turn invade each other’s internal biological state influencing their construction of each other’s brains.

Peter Fonagy (2003) argues that it is through engagement with other minds that one’s mind emerges and emotions become organized. Patterns of emotional experiences with other people significantly shapes our emotional development, and consequently our emotional responses, throughout life (Gerhardt, 2004).

Source of image: http://keepkidssafe.org/effects-of-child-abuse/  (Accessed on 28 June 2017)

The human brain is built in this way: through the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nurture and nature become one (Fonagy, 2003).If adequate opportunities and experiences coalesce with adequate genetic programming, the individual’s brain is fashioned in a manner that assists the individual throughout life. Humans also have the potential of adjusting and adapting to unwholesome ecosystems and pathological caregivers (Music, 2011). The resulting adjustments can assist to survive a traumatic childhood but it may also result in insalubrious development later in life. Consequently, infant’s early experiences and relationships – as seen in Spitz’s reports – could leave an enormous impression on the development of the neural system. In view of this, early experiences, including interaction with caregivers and the environment have a very real and imposing impact on brain development: on a conscious and also unconscious level (Gerhardt, 2004). Early experiences, are “the bones of emotional life, hidden and outside awareness – the invisible history of each individual (Gerhardt, 2004, pp.15).


Blakemore, S. J., & Frith, U. (2004). The learning brain: lessons for education. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cozolino, K. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fonagy, P. (2003). The development of psychopathology from infancy to adulthood: the mysterious unfolding of disturbance in time, Infant Mental Health Journal, 24(3), 212-239.

Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. Routledge: East Sussex.

Music, G. (2011) Nurturing Natures. New York: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

Spitz, R.A. (1945). Hospitalism –An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1, 53-74.


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