By guest author Dr. Majed Ashy
What are the effects on children of exposure to and experience of violence during their formative years?
The last post focused on some of the major forms of violence to which many children in America are exposed. Today’s post focuses on the effects on the developing brain of early experiences with violence.
The brain is an organ that is shaped by experience. Early childhood experiences with abuse or trauma produce a cascade of physiological and neuro-hormonal responses, within the restrictions of our genetic makeup.
These built-in responses are directed at providing maximum adaptation to the environment in which the developing child lives. A harsh and aggressive environment may require heightened levels of vigilance toward early signs of danger.
Research has shown that early experiences of abuse and trauma are associated with:
- Long- lasting alterations in several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus (the center for memories) and the amygdala (involved in arousal, fear, and other emotional responses)
- Irritability in the limbic system (seat of motivations and emotions related to survival, including fear and anger)
- Diminished maturation in the left hemisphere (seat of language and logic)
- Reduction in the size of the corpus callosum, which provides communication between the two sides of the brain.
Such changes have cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences that can be adaptive in chronically dangerous environments where impulsive responses such as a fight or flight response are required and there’s not much time to think before acting.
However, what are the dangers of such response patterns in people whose childhood has left them full of anger and hatred?
For further reference: Teicher, M, Samson, J, Tomoda, A., Ashy, M., & Andersen, S (2006) Neurobiological and behavioral consequences of exposure to childhood traumatic stress. In Bengt B. Arnetz and Rolf Ekman (Editors) Stress in health and disease. KGaA, Weinheim WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.
Majed Ashy, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Merrimack College and a research fellow in psychiatry at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School