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Only More Mother-Infant Bonding Can Prevent Cycles of Violence

by James W. Prescott

An edited version of the following commentary on Teicher's article, re. preventing depression and violence was published in Cerebrum 3(1): 8-9 & 124, Winter 2001.

The article by Martin H. Teicher "Wounds That Time Won't Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse" (Fall, 2000) is an important contribution to the growing literature on the structural and functional brain abnormalities associated with child abuse and neglect. There are a number of issues, however, that deserve further comment and clarification.

  1. The primary problem in the etiology of violence against children—and violence in general—is to be found in failed bonding in the mother-infant/child relationship—Somato-Sensory Affectional Deprivation (S-SAD). Child abuse and neglect is a consequence of S-SAD. This sensory deprivation of somatic affectional pleasure in the mother-infant/child relationship induces developmental brain abnormalities in the limbic/cerebellar/prefrontal cortical complex. Among these abnormalities is neurohyperexcitability that is induced according to Cannon's Law of Denervation Supersensitivity. Somatosensory affectional deprivation induces the development of the neurodissociative brain. Somatosensory affectional stimulation induces the development of the neurointegrative brain.1 Continuing emphasis on child physical abuse detracts from the true etiology of violence against children and, thus, impedes promoting effective programs of prevention that must assure somatic affectional bonding in the mother-infant/child relationship.
  2. There is a long history of brain-behavioral studies in the mother-deprived rhesus monkey (Harlow preparation), which document brain abnormalities due to failed bonding in the mother-infant relationship. These studies were supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH that began in the mid 1960s and throughout the 1970s.2 3 4 5 Unfortunately, these and other animal research findings—some 30 years ago—failed to result in the implementation of research programs to document expected similar developmental brain abnormalities in unbonded children who—as youth and adults—are frequently depressed and violent, as today's statistics reveal and Teicher has rightly emphasized.
  3. The pivotal breakthrough study on "swinging mother surrogates", conducted by Drs. William Mason and Gershon Berkson (cited by Teicher), demonstrated that it is body movement—"vestibular cerebellar stimulation"—that is the key to understanding the prevention of the emotional-social-behavioral abnormalities that are consequent to mother-infant separation. The award winning Time Life documentary film "Rock a Bye Baby", which vividly portrays the effects of that NICHD supported Mason-Berkson study, was premiered at the 1970 White House Conference on Children and can be viewed at http://www.violence.de/tv/rockabye.html.
  4. Cross-cultural studies on tribal cultures fully confirmed the findings of Drs. Mason and Berkson, where the peaceful or violent character of 49 tribal cultures distributed throughout the world could be predicted with 80 percent accuracy. This prediction was based upon a singular measure of mother-infant bonding, namely, being continually carried on the body of the mother through the first year of life that provides the foundation for "Basic Trust" in human relationships.6 7 The acceptance or punishment of premarital sex—the continuum of physical affectional bonding or its absence—accounted for the peaceful or violent nature of the cultural exceptions.
  5. Studies have confirmed the essential role that breastfeeding—for 2.5 years or longer—has for the mother-infant/child bonding process. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is converted into brain serotonin, is richly present in colostrum and breastmilk but absent in formula milk. Infant formula feeding deprives the developing brain of many nutrients essential for normal brain-behavioral development and, in particular, impairs the normal development of the brain serotonin system—deficits of which—are known to mediate depression, impulse dyscontrol and violent behaviors, particularly suicide. Failure of breastfeeding is proposed to adversely affect the development of other brain neurochemical systems.8

Ongoing cross-cultural studies have revealed that 77% of 26 tribal cultures studied, which breastfeed for 2.5 years or longer, were rated low or absent in suicide. The infliction of pain upon the infant by the nurturing mother accounts for the cultural exceptions in this study, where pain/pleasure experiences from mother establishes an impossible conflict on the meaning of somatic love in the developing mind of the infant/child—long before cognitive language is learned or understood. This conflict contributes to the development of sado-masochism and why "somatic love" is often violent. The recent study of MacMillan, et al. documents a life-time prevalence of psychiatric disorders consequent to slapping and spanking of children [CMAJ, 1999:161 (7)].

See also http://www.empathicparenting.org and www.nospank.net. The genital mutilation of children (circumcision—the first act of child sexual abuse) also contributes to the disorders of somatic love where pain and not pleasure first encodes the developing brain complex that is designed for somatic love and not for the pain of violence.9

Teicher is correct in observing that the damaging effects of child abuse on the developing brain are life-long and that it is questionable whether such effects can be reversed in adulthood. The only solution, however, is true prevention, which must involve societal support of mothers being nurturing mothers.10 There are reasons why that African proverb rings so true—it takes an entire village to raise a child—where America has lost its villages many years ago.

Tragically, continuing American social-political ideology has reinforced the cycles of inter-generational violence due to mother-infant/child separations. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and the growth of the infant/early child day care industries—which prevents somatic bonding between mother and infant/child or anyone else later in life—contributes to the very problems that we are trying to prevent. These perspectives are contrary to the belief of Teicher that "We would have to commit ourselves, seriously, to improving access to quality day care and after-school programs"—a prescription that is too little, too late and counter-productive to forming and maintaining somatic-cognitive affectional bonds in the mother-infant/child relationship.

The damage is already done during the first five years of life, where meaningful recovery in therapeutic programs has proven to be costly with more failure than success, if any success can be claimed. America needs to promote true prevention—supporting mothers being nurturing mothers through somatic and cognitive affectional bonding between mother and infant/child that results in personal and societal peace and harmony. The primary role of father and society is to support that process.

Republished with the kind permission of James W. Prescott. HTML by Joel Schlosberg. Please inform us about any errors you find. If you want to write a translation, please contact Erik Möller.