Blog 12) The Neuroscientist’s Prima: Implementing the Findings of Modern Neuroscience

The Neuroscientist’s Prima: Implementing the Findings of Modern Neuroscience

 ‘In The Lonely Hour’

 “I need someone, that I’ll look to,

In the lonely hour, that we all go through

To give me comfort, and love me through

In the lonely hour, I need you”

 Sam Smith

 The more we learn about the anatomy and physiology of the brain, the more we realise the vital importance of early, infantile experience in determining the remainder of an individual’s life history. This is why I believe that Prima is a vitally important policy proposal: it addresses the many social, behavioural and emotional needs, uncovered by modern neuroscience, – and, so frequently frustrated in contemporary society. In this very brief review, I can best illustrate this by outlining two areas of theory which I believe will ultimately be linked together to irrefutably confirm my opening statement: these are, firstly, ‘attachment theory’ and, secondly, recent neurophysiological ideas about emotion and ‘affect’.

Attachment theory was developed in the 1960s and ‘70s. It states that, to facilitate survival, evolution has ensured that human infants will attempt to bond with their ‘primary caregiver’. Depending on the sensitive of this adult, the extent to which they ‘attune’ to the infant in their care, this attempt at bonding will result in basically three types of ‘attachment’ outcome: ‘secure’, ‘anxious–preoccupied’ and ‘avoidant’.

As the names imply, the achievement of ‘secure attachment’ with the primary caregiver means that the infant will go on in life to form ‘healthy’ and ‘positive’ bonds with others, especially with a spouse. ‘Avoidant’ essentially implies a failure of attachment: due to negative or inadequate responses from the care-giver, the infant concludes that ‘others’ are not to be trusted or relied upon to fulfil needs, or, in the worst case, that others represent a physical or psychological threat. Clearly, these infants grow into adults who have few and difficult relationships and generally are not ‘socially successful’ in life. Developing an ‘anxious–preoccupied’ attachment results in adults who are excessively dependent or controlling and generally tend to be very neurotic regarding relationships.

We also now have a powerful theory as to the equipment with which the infant makes these attachment ‘choices’: Jaak Panksepp, in particular, has developed a conceptualisation of seven, primordial, ‘hard-wired’, emotional systems in the mammalian brain: the first, and perhaps most innovative, is the ‘seeking’ system. Essentially, this is a final rebuff to the behaviourist notion of organisms as passive reactors, waiting for the environment to provide stimuli. The human infant, like all mammals, doesn’t need to await ‘stimuli’ before it starts exploring and interacting with the environment. The urged to go out and find what an organism’s internal systems tell it that it needs is hard-wired.

The next three emotional systems; ‘rage’, ‘fear’ and ‘lust’, might be described as primitive, in the sense that we share them with older animal genera, such as reptiles, and their functions are fairly obvious. Then there are the evolutionarily ‘newer’ systems; ‘caring’, ‘panic/grief’ and ‘play’, which are unique to mammals (and possibly birds). ‘Caring’ is clearly concerned with parental nurturing of offspring, and rises to a peak of importance in humans, who produce the most vulnerable and longest-dependent children. ‘Panic/grief’ can be described as the infant’s side of this ‘emotional parenting system’: if lost or abandoned, mammalian infants will react with panic, producing distress calls, and, in the absence of rescue, will eventually fall into grief.

Again, these systems are clearly vitally involved in the attachment process. Finally, Panksepp posits a ‘play’ instinct, with an associated subjective emotion. Children’s play, from birth onwards, is one of those behavioural necessities which modern society is systematically frustrating: special arrangements have to be made for infants and toddlers to play together, often for very limited periods of time. Something which should be natural and universal, becomes a rare and sometimes entirely missing opportunity. Play for older children is made difficult and dangerous by the architecture of our cities and suburbs, where motor traffic takes precedence over children’s need to play. One consequence of all this may be the prevalence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (in contemporary America, nearly 9% of children) – possibly caused by not enough play.

Prima would, I believe, provide the most optimal environment possible, in the modern world, for parents and infants to achieve the best possible attachment outcome. (Currently, it’s estimated that just over half of adults achieve ‘secure attachment’ – though this, of course, doesn’t guarantee that they are free of neurosis or optimally adjusted to life.) Prima has been conceived to overcome, to the greatest extent possible, the poor attachment of most modern parents and to maximise the opportunities for both parents and infants to experience the seven human emotional systems in the most positive way and with the healthiest outcomes.