The following video was brought to my attention by one of my long-term clients who also happens to be an excellent therapist and works extensively with concepts of shame in her own practice. This week, I’ll be discussing the video in several posts. I recommend that you watch the entire video. It’s fascinating, informative and provides a neurological basis for an understanding of shame. The primary lecturer, Allan Schore, and the other researchers don’t discuss shame, in particular — they approach this topic from the perspective of attachment theory; but as you’ll see, their explanation of neurological development in the infant help us understand how an early and deep-seated shame takes root. I’m very grateful to my client for sending me a link to this valuable resource:
You’re no doubt familiar with the nature vs nurture debate concerning the relative importance of heredity and the environment. Nowadays, the prevailing view seems to be that it’s neither one nor the other but an interaction between the two that defines us. Even so, most people assume that you are born into the world with your complete genetic makeup and that you then interact with your environment. The primary lecturer in this video — Allan Schore, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA — challenges this view: “One of the great fallacies that many scientists have is that everything that is before birth is genetic and that everything that is after birth is learned. This is not the case.” He goes on to explain that there is much more genetic material in the brain at ten months than at birth. Only the brain stem or “primitive brain” is “well advanced” at birth; the rest of brain continues to unfold and develop for the next two years as neurons become myelinated and interconnect. This development does not occur in an automatic and predetermined way in all people; it is powerfully affected by the environment, in particular by interactions and relationships with the primary caretakers.
It’s a more nuanced view of the nature vs nurture debate. Not only is it nature AND nurture, as most of us already believe; an individual’s particular genetic makeup (nature) also continues to evolve during the first two years of life under the influence of the environment (nurture). In other words, what happens to you, emotionally and psychologically, during those first two years, and especially in the first nine months of life, will powerfully influence your neurological development, determining how your brain takes shape in lasting ways. Most important among the brain parts that develop during these early months are those that involve the “emotional and social functioning of the child.” And if those parts of the brain are to develop appropriately, “certain experiences are needed. Those experiences are embedded in the relationship between the caretaker and the infant.”
At about the 5:45 minute mark in the video, Schore makes the following statement: “there’s something necessary … that the human brain needs in terms of other human contact, for it to grow. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. Cells that fire together, wire together. Cells that do not, die together.” The idea is related to the notion of critical periods, which you’re probably familiar with: organisms have a heightened sensitivity to certain environmental stimuli during specific periods of their development. If the organism does not receive appropriate stimuli during this critical period, it may never develop certain functions, or do so only with great difficulty or in limited ways.
So what is Schore telling us? If an infant doesn’t receive the kind of emotional interactions it needs from its caretakers during the early months of life, its brain won’t develop optimally. Certain neurons that should have interconnected will instead die. “Use or lose it” — if you don’t get what you need during those first two years, that experience will alter you for life. As my own client translates it, this means “brain damage.” You might be able to modify that damage to a degree, with a lot of hard work, but you will never be the person you might have been if you’d gotten what you needed during that critical period of emotional development.
A deeply sobering thought. You can call it what you like — bad parenting, failure of attunement, insecure attachment — but when things go wrong between parent and child in the first two years of life, you are permanently damaged by it in ways that cannot be erased. The awareness that you are damaged, the felt knowledge that you didn’t get what you needed and that as a result, your emotional development has been warped and stunted in profound ways — this is what I refer to as basic shame. It was the subject of one of the first posts I wrote on this website and I’ve been writing about it ever since. The concept lies at the heart of the work I do.
Schore’s view exposes the absurdity of that simplistic view of mental illness as a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s not that you lack sufficient serotonin in your neural synapses; rather, the existence or lack of certain neurons, and the interconnections between them, has been permanently altered by failures of attachment during the first two years of life. You can’t fix that with a drug. Affirmations and other forms of positive psychology will of course have little effect upon brain damage. Cognitive-behavior therapy might teach you some useful techniques for coping with your damage but it won’t make you into a different person. No matter what you do, you’ll never be just like the person who went through the emotional experiences she needed during that critical period.
Two other lecturers in this video connect the experience of secure attachment during this critical period to the development of both a fundamental sense of self-esteem and the ability to feel empathy for others. The links to shame and narcissistic defenses against it are implicit. Either you get what you need from your caretakers during those early months and your brain develops in such a way that you have a fundamental sense of self-confidence and security in the world; or you don’t get what you need and the residue — the neurological damage — is basic shame. Either your caretakers are emotionally attuned to you and you develop (neurologically) the capacity to empathize with other people; or those caretakers
let you down and as a result, your constant struggle for a sense of your own worth and importance powerfully limits your ability to empathize with other people.
Near the end of the video, Score stresses the importance of joy in the attachment experience — that is, the infant’s attunement with its mother in the experience of her joy and interest in the baby is crucial for optimal development. If you don’t have that experience, if you don’t feel that your mother experiences joy in your presence and finds you beautiful — it will permanently damage your brain as it develops. In an earlier post, I said that the baby whose mother doesn’t adore it (feel profound joy and interest in it) “never gets over it, not really.” Now I can say why: it’s because the neurological development of its brain was permanently altered — that is, damaged — by the failure to get what was needed during the first year of life.
In the next post, I’ll show how Schore’s view of psycho-biological development sheds light on the tenacity of psychological defense mechanisms; in the third, I’ll return to my earlier post on the healing of shame and discuss how another attachment in the form of a long-term psychotherapy relationship can ameliorate (but not entirely erase erase) this early damage.