How Do Our Experiences as Children Shape Differences in Brain Development?

As an infant, did your parents attend dutifully to your every need and always pay attention to you? When you tried to show them a work of art you created, did they immediately pay attention to your piece or did they tell you to ‘hold on one minute’ as they finished something up? Chances are, if they looked at your work right away and responded to your needs, you had a securely attached childhood. If they told you to wait or were preoccupied with something else, you probably had an insecure attachment to your parents. Neither of these attachment styles are better than the other, but they do shape interactions in your adult relationships.

Before getting into the social interactions themselves, let’s take a look at the parts of the brain that play a role in our social interactions with others.

An infographic on parts of the brain that assist with social interaction.

More on Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons, as mentioned above, are found in the superior temporal sulcus, and help us empathize with others. Scientists have found that the mirror system is most likely under no conscious control (Frith, 2007). Meaning that we should just empathize with everyone around us. However, we don’t copy the same actions as those around us all the time, nor do we feel the same emotion as someone we see while walking on our way to work. The amount of empathy we feel toward a person, or how likely we are to mirror their actions, depends on our relationship toward that person. If it is a stranger, we are far less likely to mirror their emotion than that of a close friend or a parent. This also occurs situationally.

“We feel less empathy, in terms of subjective report and brain activity, if someone who has just treated us unfairly receives pain, especially if we are male. We also show more empathy with the pain of another if we are in eye contact with them at the moment they receive the pain” (Frith, 2007).

It is obvious that emotions and the mirror neurons are subject to changes in social situations, but it is not yet known weather emotions change and mirror neurons fire for communicative purposes. Do we unconsciously change our emotions to better communicate with others? Or do they change so that we can better fit in with a group (so as not to be the only happy person in a crowd of stoic faces)? The research mentioned by Frith (2007) above seems to indicate that it is, in fact, for both. If we can communicate to another that we can empathize with their pain as they are receiving it, that may make them think better of us and therefore better fit in with them.


Brain images of a person feeling physical pain and another person feeling empathy.

As you can see, there is no individual part of the brain that controls social interactions. Just as any other function, such as movement, takes more than the prefrontal gyrus, so does social interaction. Each emotion does have it’s own one or two places in the brain that it uses, but as a whole, socially interacting takes the whole brain. What scientists have found is that emotions are contagious (Frith, 2007), when someone else is sad, we also become sad. As you can see in the image, similar parts of the brain, although less, are activated when someone is experiencing physical pain and another person is feeling empathy for them. When we imitate, or mirror, another person’s emotions or feelings, we can experience the same emotional states as those around us. This is different than mentalizing what the other person is thinking. We can tell that they are happy, but we will not know what they are happy about until we see it or ask them about it.

In development then, we see that those parts of the brain are constantly changing and being affected by our social experiences. Infants cry when they see or hear another infant crying. They do not understand why the other baby is upset, and they might have been perfectly content a few moments ago, but now they are upset as well; feeling empathy for the first upset child. Later in life, a child may instead try to comfort an upset friend. The video below will explain the different stages of an infant’s recognition of people and following that, I will cover how social interactions in these stages will affect a child’s attachment.

Schaffer & Emerson’s findings on how infants form and develop attachments.

In the asocial stage, infants do not have any preference for certain humans over others, not even their parents. It has been shown that they prefer humans over non-humans, but as to which human interaction they enjoy most, there is none. This is a time for infants in which they are finding out what it is like to exist outside of the womb. They are learning to use all their physical senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell for the first time. It is sensation overload for them at this point, so putting any effort into socially interacting is low on the priority list.

The indiscriminate stage is where infants are learning to distinguish between individuals. They have a stronger attachment with their primary caregivers and people they are familiar with, but they do not fear people they do not know. It would still be possible to pass around the child and it would not get upset from being separated from it’s parents.

When specific attachment occurs, children start to notice when they are separated from their parents and become upset when they are left with people they do not know. At this age, scientists would be able to begin distinguishing what kind of attachment style the child has. When Mary Ainsworth first developed and conducted the Strange Situation experiment, she used child participants from ages 12–18 months. I would argue that children could have been used as young as 8 months, since specific attachments begin to occur in normally developing children at that age.

Finally, the child begins to become more comfortable with other familiar adults (grandparents, friends, etc.) in the multiple attachment stage. Here the child works more on social skills instead of focusing on the one or two secure attachments that it has with it’s primary caregivers.


The following link is for a podcast by Dr. Jeanne Brooks on attachment in children and how important it is for children to have a secure attachment with their parent(s).



References

Frith, C. D. (2007). The social brain? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), 671–678. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2006.2003

Howcast. (n.d.). What Is Attachment Disorder? | Child Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsRsmEDuqy8

Miller, B. (2014). Secure and insecure attachment | Individuals and Society | MCAT | Khan Academy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtAyPy1OZCw

Mary Ainsworth | Attachment Styles | Simply Psychology. (2016). Retrieved December 3, 2017, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html

Relationship Attachment Style Test. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/tests/relationships/relationship-attachment-style-test

Rubin M.D., Ph.D., E. (2012). Social Interactions and Brain Cell Connections. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/demystifying-psychiatry/201206/social-interactions-and-brain-cell-connections

Tina Tillmann. (2016). Attachment Theory and its Effects on Adult Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAPfiSw_Ic

What are key parts of the social brain circuit used in social processing? (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://readingroom.mindspec.org/?page_id=4767

Zilberstein, K. (2006). Clarifying core characteristics of attachment disorders: A review of current research and theory — ProQuest. Retrieved November 23, 2017, from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.loras.edu/docview/1038624318/fulltextPDF/338C5A95DEFD42E2PQ/1?accountid=35772