Sunday, November 4, 2012

Experiences Shape the Brain

Much has been said and written on the subject of medication and its role in mental health care.  Perhaps too much.  Though it is growing, comparatively little has been said or noticed about other ways the brain is and can be shaped in order to improve emotional well being.  Let's take a brief look at how experiences, both positive and negative, influence brain development and functioning.

A recent study, for example, examined the transmission of anxiety from parents to children.  This research found that socially anxious parents imparted anxiety through specific parenting behaviors involving lack of warmth and affection, and criticism and doubt directed toward the child.  The role of these experiences is thought to contribute to the development of anxiety apart from genetic contributions, because the latter alone are not thought to be sufficient in the etiology of an anxiety disorder.  It does not require a tremendous leap to imagine that parental warmth and confidence provided to children reduces the likelihood of a future anxiety disorder.  The experience of warmth and confidence is more powerful, in my opinion, than any medication we would later give to the adult child to address their anxieties.  And more lasting too.

In another arena, a play-based method of teaching social interaction, called ESDM, to autistic children was shown to result in positive brain changes.  Researchers studied brain activity in both autistic and non-autistic children, after the former received the therapy for two years, and could not identity differences which are apparent otherwise.  Clearly, this behavioral intervention altered brain activity in a very desirable manner.  I'll wager that there are not many parents of children with autism who would not jump at the chance of this non-medical or intrusive intervention.  If only they were given the chance, or that such behavioral interventions were as aggressively marketed as medications are.

Currently, one has to dig deeply into the literature or perhaps be lucky enough to have an insightful and gifted care provider to access information about evidence-based psychological interventions.  The American Psychological Association does maintain resources on these interventions on their very good web site and Help Center (  I encourage consumers to be educated concerning these alternatives to physiological interventions, which, in my experience are helpful at times and with some individuals, though the benefits come with cost and ultimately fade with time.

Experiences shape the brain.  Those who have experienced stress, trauma and deprivations have brains, and even appearances, which show this.  Those who have experienced positive relationships and satisfaction of needs also have brains which show that.  It would seem, given that we know this, that individuals, groups, communities and even countries would develop systems which promote the application of sound psychological principles to the advancement of human welfare.