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|It's a Jungle in There - Page 3|
The Primacy of Early Learning
While being embedded in groups has been necessary for our survival and development as human beings, it can create friction and dysfunction. What makes the combination of a complex brain and human interdependency such a problem? From birth, the primitive regions of our brains are deeply affected by our social and emotional experiences, while our more sophisticated brains still haven't "come online." As a result, a great deal of important learning takes place while our primitive brains are in control. For most of us, these learned reactions and feelings remain forever inaccessible to conscious memory or modification. We mature into self-awareness years later, having been programmed by early experience with assumptions that we accept as truth.
The powerful influence that early experience exerts over our brains can be both good and bad news. The good news is that the individual brain is well-suited to survive in whatever social environment into which it's born. Parents, family, and culture shape each of our brains for maximum adaptation to our social niche. In good times, and with good-enough parents, this early brain-building will serve us well in adulthood. The bad news comes when the surrounding factors aren't so favorable, as when parental psychopathology shapes the baby's brain in ways that, though they optimize childhood survival, prove to be maladaptive later in life. The child's brain is shaped with its most primitive survival mechanisms—loosely speaking, its unconscious "horse" and "crocodile" mechanisms—operating at full tilt to react to abuse, for example, with dissociation and other defenses, and insufficiently modulated by the regulating, late-developing cortex.
We see this in abused and neglected children, who often enter adolescence and adulthood without a clear picture of their early experiences, but with a variety of symptoms, such as explosive anger, eating disorders, or drug and alcohol problems. They have identity disturbances and a poor self-image, exacerbated by angry feelings and negative behaviors. Like the brains of veterans with PTSD, the brains of these children have been shaped to survive combat, but are ill-equipped to negotiate the peace.