“Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”
Do you ever wonder why you stayed in a bad relationship? I’ve often been curious about themes that seem to recur in situations of attachment. Isn’t it odd that far from spurring us on to healthier commitments, unsatisfying relationships seem to repeat with new friends or lovers?
Psychologists call this “repetition compulsion,” and grapple with how to break the chain of events and expectations that lead from one unhappiness to the next.
The famous Harlow experiments
In Harry Harlow’s controversial 1950’s experiments with baby monkeys, he demonstrated that without interaction, brains develop abnormally. Harlow’s monkey’s were deprived at birth of mothering; they were given food, shelter, and a rag doll as a surrogate mother.
The babies became extremely attached to the surrogates, clutching them for comfort in the absence of a live mother. Researchers embedded retractable sharp points in the surrogates, and even when they were harmed by painful embraces, the monkeys returned to the surrogates for comfort whenever the spikes were withdrawn.
The monkeys rejected surrogates who were not “their” mother, remaining loyal to the one they had become attached to.
Judging yourself is simply misguided
If, like Harlow’s monkeys, we’ve been habituated to a certain emotional pattern, when a more fulfilling kind of relationship is available we aren’t necessarily aware of it because it doesn’t look like anything we recognize.
If we’re getting a little of something we desperately need, in fact if we’re getting something we can pretend meets that need, our instinctive behavior is to wait through pain and anxiety for the return of the substitute around whom we’ve structured our feelings and fantasies.
Neurologically, even once we’ve recovered emotionally from abuse, our brains remain structured by our past actions. So for example, in recent research on depression, there’s evidence of atypical brain activity remaining after recovery from depression.
Deep scars from early life
Participants in one study were asked to listen to pre-recorded criticism from their own mother. “Individuals who had never been depressed showed increased activity” in the “brain areas involved in the cognitive control of emotion,” (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex).
Those individuals who had been formerly depressed didn’t activate these areas of the brain related to emotion; instead they increased activity in the part of the brain that responds to threats (the amygdala).
This suggests that treatment for depression should include rehabilitative work with an individual’s experience of their basic right to exist and to have their needs met, and that this practice of addressing root needs should go on even after recovery from depression. Interestingly, the amygdala activated participants did not describe a conscious sense of threat after listening to the criticism, even though their brain scans clearly showed the nervous system processing a threat.
The study notes, “Previous research has shown similar activity in these neural systems among individuals who are currently depressed.” So although we may be feeling better, at our deep structural level we still need experiences that will recruit new sense making pathways. Otherwise we’re condemned to go on making sense of things in the only way we know how.
Without compassion for ourselves, none for others
In the New Yorker this month, Harry Harlow’s infamous experiments with baby monkeys are background material for an informative article on solitary confinement in America’s prison system. Atul Gawande writes:
Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldn’t have anything like a child’s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We don’t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system.
Gawande asks, is solitary confinement torture? Surprisingly, prison officials think so and would like to see the practice abandoned in most situations. These authorities say isolation doesn’t reform those in prison, it makes them crazy.
EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement.
Patterns that need attention and deserve care
Gawande makes it clear that simply removing these prisoners from solitary confinement does not make them well. Their brain damage is the same as if someone had beat them on the head enough to knock them unconscious.
Likewise, simply getting out of a bad relationship, although it is the important first step toward health, won’t by itself change how you make sense of your needs, or how invested you are in getting them met in a particular way.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.