Eric Kandel is a dapper, bow-tied, Austrian-American neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize winner. He specializes in the physiological basis of memory. In his book “The Age of Insight,” he reminds us of the creative atmosphere of Vienna where he was born. He writes, “I see psychoanalysis, art and biology coming together”
I first learned about Kandel on the Charlie Rose “Brain Series” where a panel of scientists described their research on the human brain. Each episode discusses a different aspect of the brain: perception, creativity, aging, depression, addiction and so on.
The latest episode was devoted to childhood environmental deprivation. Deprivation affects specific areas of the brain and stunts normal development in such areas as behavior and language acquisition. Mental disorders are rooted in biology and we have evolved technologies such as brain imaging and mapping that can trace and record mental impulses and clearly show the affected brain areas.
I learned a new word: “epigenetics.” This is the study of biological mechanisms that switch certain of our genes on and off. Some circumstances in life can cause genes to be expressed or silenced, and that is how environment affects genetics.
Some of the causes of abnormal development seem self- evident. Poverty is an important factor and often results in parental neglect and abuse as well as lack of intellectual stimulation. Institutions like orphanages are particularly responsible for an impoverished childhood environment. This is expressed when children have problems in controlling their behavior. Some of the symptoms are: aggression, tantrums, difficulty in relating to other people, and cruelty to animals. Intervention is possible, especially if started early. At age 2 it can be very successful. Although the scientists seemed very reluctant to say so, the window of opportunity seems to close by age 12.
School bullying was discussed since it also affects normal childhood development. It is possible to teach a child some defense mechanisms, but there is a need for more awareness on the part of teachers and school administrations to intervene to try to change the culture in which bullying arises. More studies are also needed to understand how and why some children are more resilient to adversity and the ways to promote such resilience.
It is always fascinating to learn and understand more about the constant interaction of our genetic makeup and our environment.
Here is a link to the shows in the Brain Series.