The consequences of sensory deprivation in early childhood
by Kim Knight, The Art of Health
“If you don’t bond with anyone as a child, you’re not going to bond with anyone as an adult” – Dr James Prescott
I recently came across some fascinating information about early childhood sensory deprivation and the long-term consequences of this as they play out in life. The information comes from James Prescott PhD, an amazing research scientist who has devoted his whole life to studying this phenomenon. It made many things clear as to why we develop certain habits, tendencies and ways of being, as well as various mental, emotional and physical problems. I’d like to share a few gems from his work here.
The essentialness of touch
“The environment encodes and programs the developing brain for perception and behaviour through the six sensory systems”
According to science we have five main sensory systems known as sight, sound, smell, taste and hearing. It has been documented through clinical observation that separation at birth of the infant from mother can have dire mental, emotional and physical consequences. This is noted in particular with babies who are separated at birth in hospital, and in children who grow up in orphanages without normal care and touch.
A separation at birth immediately deprives the infant of feeling of loved, happy and secure. When separated from the mother, newborns will actually begin to build a resistance to touch and nurturing (despite the desperate need for positive touch) and the ability by the brain to handle and assimilate touch actually becomes impaired. Infants separated at birth and orphans in homes without primary care-givers often develop symptoms of listlessness and depression.
The essentialness of movement
Dr Prescott also discovered that we have another critical sensory system; movement. He learnt, through observing infants and monkeys, that apart from touch, movement is a critical sensory system for healthy emotional and physical development. Together, a lack of tactile stimulation, coupled with lack of movement, leads to mental and emotional dysfunctional behaviours including depression, violence, self-mutilation, addictions and aversion to touch.
Movement is a sensory system connected to the vestibular sensory system, the auditory system of the inner ear, which is in turn connected to the cerebellum. It is involved in all autonomic functions of the autonomic nervous system and all bodily functions are affected by movement. The brain literally needs sensory stimulation and movement for normal growth and development, and lack of touch and movement stunt brain cell growth.
For example, two monkeys, separated from their mothers, both given identical surrogate fur-covered bottles (mothers) in their cage, would respond and develop in a completely different way according to whether the surrogate mother was moving or not. The monkey in the cage with the still, lifeless surrogate became listless, depressed, anti-social and violent. When a new monkey was introduced into the cage with the monkey brought up with the static surrogate, the latter monkey would violently attach the former monkey if it tried to be friendly or touch it. In other words, instead of receiving the touch, it would push the other monkey away violently and defend itself at all costs.
On the other hand, the monkey given the moving surrogate developed much better relationship skills and emotional behaviours. When another monkey was introduced into its cage, it responded gently, allowing the new monkey to touch it and play.
Through these experiments Dr Prescott thus discovered that our emotional and sensory systems are not separate, they develop together, and that sensory deprivation will lead to emotional deprivation.
How the brain is programmed
“The single-most important stimuli for affectional bonding is movement connected to the mother after birth. More important than touch and breast-feeding, this is the sensory system that is responsible for basic trust”
As human beings, we are socialized, programmed and conditioned through our sensory systems. Our brain is literally programmed through these systems via the environment as we grow. Our brain cells unconsciously and automatically encode the physical environment that we experience, and we will only see or experience what is encoded. And whatever happens during that coding, whether it be perceived as pain or pleasure, is responsible for the beliefs and patterns that we create which then shape our lives.
What Dr Prescott started to realize was that according to the environment that we grow up in, and specifically the amount of loving touch and sensory movement we experience from the moment of birth, our brain will either be programmed to be able to handle, receive and give pleasure, or not. And if the sense of comfort, love and nurturing is lacking, our brain will automatically program itself for pain, violence and self-protection.
Movement instills safety
The primary sensory input that stimulates the central nervous system (cns) of the developing foetus is movement. This movement literally bonds the foetus to the mother before birth. When we are in the womb, this movement is felt all the time by the growing infant, and creates a feeling of safety and nurturing. The infant knows that when it feels movement that it is alive and that it is connected to the mother. In other words,
MOVEMENT = LIFE
NO MOVEMENT = DEATH
This is in fact a universal law. Anything that is alive will move, and anything that atrophies will die. And in emotional terms, movement also equates to safety and trust, whilst lack of movement will lead to feelings of “I’m going to die”.
This movement needs to continue once we are born. In many traditional cultures this happens automatically as the baby is carried with the mother at all times in a sling. This is also of course how many primates carry their young – they are attached to the mother for a considerable period of time, which instills within the infant a sense of security and trust.
Emotional Maturity, pleasure and pain
Dr Prescott realized that the emotional systems of the brain which experience pleasure need to be developed between infancy and childhood. Whatever we experience as sensory stimulation will lay down the neuro-structural foundation in the brain for our later experience of affection, peace, pleasure and love. If the pleasure circuits in the brain are activated, the circuits that inflict pain are simultaneously inhibited. So as we are growing, it is critical that we develop the structural and functional systems of the brain properly to allow our pleasure systems to develop and function properly.
Depending on what we experience as in infant in terms of pleasure or pain will determine how we perceive life as we grow. In other words, is life a pleasurable or painful experience? Our experience of life will be defined by what we experience in the first few days, months or years of our life, which then solidify into the unconscious beliefs and patterns we adopt as we grow. It has been postulated that 80% of our experience of the world comes from our internal experience, whilst only 20% comes from real external circumstances. We really do create our own reality and live in ‘our own world’.
Hypersensitivity and addiction
“Addiction is a self-treatment of the emotional pain from the deprivation of affection and pleasure”
Another effect of maternal deprivation that Dr Prescott discovered is abnormally high voltage electrical discharge and activity in the brain, called ‘spiking’. Essentially the neurons become hypersensitive as lack of sensory stimulation through touch or movement leads to hypersensitivity to touch. This explains why people growing up without touch will desperately want it but will exhibit a number of contradictory behaviours when approached by others with affection: they may either shy away as soon as someone approaches them, respond violently with rejection and even develop self-mutilating behaviours.
The simple truth is that lack of normal sensory stimulation in infancy damages the brain’s development, stunting brain cells and creating malformed dendrites. The brain is literally not functioning normally. This then leads to the experience of the world as painful as opposed to pleasurable, which then leads to self-mutilating and self-sabotaging behaviours.
Another behaviour that develops is addiction. Lack of affectional bonding leads to addictions in an effort to deal with the emotional pain of deprivation. Addictions can range from over-eating, drinking and drugs to any number of socio-psychopathic behaviours.
Dr Prescott discovered that whilst the sensory system that engages pleasure is damaged through lack of touch or movement, the sensory system that engages pain will also be affected. Lack of positive sensory input will heighten the pain threshold, leading to impaired pain perception. The affection-deprived individual then becomes more and more anti-social because the two major socialization systems (pain and pleasure) have in effect been rendered dysfunctional. This then leads to a greater need for sensory stimulation, wherebye we need to be touched, whether this brings pleasure or pain, because we are desperately seeking body contact. And this then leads to other behaviours as the person desperately and often unconsciously attempts to fill the emotional vacuum inside.
Dr Prescott discovered that once the person reached puberty, they would often try to compensate for the lack of touch and affectional bonding through sexual activity. And if a teenager or young adult was allowed to do so, some of the negative effects of early sensory deprivation might be compensated for. However, he also discovered that for people who were not allowed to be sexual at this time, their essential needs would be driven further inwards, creating even greater problems. As basic needs were further deprived, more and more violent behaviours, whether that be outward to others or inwards to the self, would develop.
Sensory deprivation leads to violent nations
Dr Prescott then did further research and discovered that lack of positive sensory input, coupled with sexual repression, was the recipe for developing violent cultures. It makes sense that if you have a number of people who have grown up with sensory deprivation, and then sexual repression, and who individually create violent behaviour towards themselves or others, then a group of such people are likely to exhibit the same behaviour en masse. He discovered that religions, cultures and nations who:
- Think it’s normal to separate infants at birth (leading to sensory deprivation, lack of affectional bonding and damage of the brain’s ability to experience pleasure)
- Do not carry their offspring on their body (negating the need for the sensory input of movement which brings a sense of safety, trust and life)
- Support abortion (which is allied to sexual repression)
- Support sexual repression (which further negates the basic need for touch)
are much more likely to support capital punishment and war, and develop into violent nations. Such cultures develop into patriarchal societies wherebye sexuality and feminine power is repressed.
On the other hand, cultures which:
- Do not separate infants from mothers at birth
- Do carry their young on their body
- Support sexual expression and freedom
Develop into peaceful nations where feminine and masculine power is neutralized and harmonized. Thus, whether internally or externally, there is a balance of power and harmony.
So, if you want to:
- Give your child the best start in life
- Pave the way for the ability for pleasure to be a child’s normal life experience
- Help stop violence in the world, whether that be on an individual or nationwide level
make sure you maintain intimate body contact with your newborn after it is born, and carry him or her continuously on the body for an extended period of time.
For more information about Dr Prescott, including free online documentary and his ‘Ten Principles of Mother-Infant bonding for health, happiness and harmony’ go to www.violence.de