The neuroscience of emotional development

Following on from our Thrive training earlier this month, we will be posting a series of articles inspired by Jan’s session. Here we look at how, from the third trimester of pregnancy and through the first three years of life, our emotional landscape is being laid down and structured neurologically.

We know that 90% of the growth of the baby’s brain happens in the first 5 years of life and that this growth is fundamentally dependent upon the experiences and relationships the baby has with its primary attachment figures.

If all is going well in the baby’s life then by three years old, we would expect to see a child who is able to build trusting relationships with others, feels safe in their identity and in their world, is interested and motivated to explore, feels secure that they are loved and lovable, can express views and has begun to manage the stresses they encounter in their daily lives without always needing adult help.

If the baby’s experiences have not been as positive, for whatever reason; maybe by regularly being exposed to high levels of anxiety/abuse/neglect, then their brain structure and stress regulation system will be wired accordingly for threat, and their emotional landscape will reflect this. These are the children who find relationships extremely difficult to make and maintain. They may appear to be “trigger happy” in their responses to perceived threat, e.g. move instantly to rage, fear or extreme anxiety. They do not feel loved or lovable, find exploration too frightening or have no ability to assess danger to themselves. They may be emotionally closed down and withdrawn from the world and these difficulties and emotional states can become entrenched and, unchallenged, embedded as behavioural traits.

In terms of the neurochemistry, the fight for dominance will always be won by those chemicals which are triggered strongest and longest. If cortisol has been constantly triggered by stress, then it will dominate and neuronal pathways wired for stress will be in control. If opioids and oxytocin have been consistently triggered through loving and reliable relationships with key carers, then the pathways will have been established to respond to stress and quickly return to emotional equilibrium.

One thought on “The neuroscience of emotional development

  1. Used this today with sixth formers to explore the consequences and ethics of deterministic theories. We were contrasting with Humanistic theories. Interesting debate about whether the above suggests some children are “lost causes” psychologically.


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