The notion that what happens to you when you’re young can stay with you for years is a compelling one, but it’s not new.
Sigmund Freud became a cultural icon for his theories on early experience and the future psyche. Literature has long weaved childhood memories into adult relationships and mental wellbeing. So have movies. (See: “The Three Faces of Eve,” “Prince of Tides,” “Mystic River”….) The concept simply resonates – both as a psychological construct, and as a metaphorical one.
So why have a conference session now on this seemingly classic idea?
Neuroscience – that’s why. The discipline of brain research has exploded in recent years – largely as a result of beautiful new imaging methods and advanced genetic technology. Scientists can compare the brains of very young children with those same brains years later. They can compare the brains of people who underwent certain childhood experiences (good or bad) with those who didn’t. Or they can seek answers about humans through brain research on animals. All this helps find connections between trauma and brain structure, between genetic make-up and resilience – with a farther-off goal of developing helpful therapies. I think it also feeds into one of the most enduring questions of psychology: which qualities are innate, and which ones are molded by time, development, and experience.
In my own personal and professional life, I’ve asked these questions many times, which is why I’m excited to be organizing a panel to explore them publicly. The people I’ve invited to take part – Dr. Charles Nelson of Boston Children’s Hospital (lead researcher on the effects of deprivation on Romanian orphans), Dr. Takao Hensch of Harvard University (a pioneer in the study of ‘critical periods’ in brain development), and journalist David Dobbs (author of a forthcoming book on behavioral genetics) – each have their own research and perspectives to draw on.
I am hoping the discussion will help AHCJ members get a better grasp on what science knows about the shaping of the pediatric brain, which questions cannot be probed given the limits in technology or ethics, and which answers are likely to make a dent in human suffering.