Written by Darcia Narvaez
Scholars know so much about the importance of early experience–you should too!
A 2010 symposium brought together anthropologists, clinical, developmental and neuro-scientists to discuss early experience in light of evolution and human development. This is necessarily an interdisciplinary area of study because we have to know our history as social mammals, what optimizes our development in our sensitive early years and what undermines the development of a cooperative human nature. The talks are available for free online. Here is a sampling of the speakers with links.
C. Sue Carter established the importance of oxytocin in social bonding, especially in early life.
Vincent Felitti, MD, was one of the authors of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Studies (ACES), showing that childhood emotional, physical abuse in the family, among other traumas, are related to greater illness and shorter lifespan.
Douglas Fry, anthropologist at the University of Alabama, reviewed data on societies, pointing out how small-band hunter-gatherers, representative 99% of human genus history, are a unique type of society that has no war (no hierarchy, no possessions). Childhood play is one way we learn self-restraint.
James McKenna’s (University of Notre Dame, Anthropology) research on mother-baby co-coordination during sleep has led more recently to the notion of breastsleeping, the natural state of human infants’ early life, optimizing development.
The late Jaak Panksepp was a pioneer in showing the similarities between humans and other social mammals in terms of emotion systems and their development. Animal studies can teach us a great deal about what humans need too.
James Prescott, formerly of the National Institutes for Mental Health, pointed out the relationship between early experience—particularly affection and breastfeeding—in producing peaceful people and societies.
Stephen Porges (University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill), integrating work with the vagus nerve, came up with polyvagal theory which identifies several different aspects of vagal nerve function. The most sophisticated requires warm responsive care.
Allan Schore (UCLA), the “American Bowlby,” continues to review the neurobiological studies of early life experience and its effects, showing that responsive mother care supports optimal brain development and secure attachment.
Stephen Suomi (NIH), one of Harry Harlow’s students, continues the work on the effects of early experience on brain and body development.
Wenda Trevathan studies the evolution of human birth and why human infants have to be so much more immature than other animals. She discusses perinatal experience and, for example, why adults hate to hear babies cry.
Keywords; Adverse childhood experiences, Attachment
The book that emerged from the conference, Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development, includes chapters from these speakers and others.