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Words: 2511 |
13 min read
Published: Aug 4, 2023
Words: 2511|Pages: 6|13 min read
In this essay, I would like to address how the neurobiological approach to explaining developmental trauma relates to the theory of ‘nature’ compared to how the attachment approach attempts to explain developmental trauma with links to both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. I will be referring to readings that give a greater insight into the thinking involved with each approach and will consider, in detail, the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in reference to their explanations of developmental trauma and the nature/nurture debate. It is also in the interest of this essay to think, not only about what each approach offers and considers but, also what they do not, particularly concerning the bond between mother and child as a crucial aspect in developmental outcomes.
The neurobiological approach considers several biological factors that could be responsible for certain human behaviours and traumas developed from childhood to adulthood and therefore, argues for the side of nature in relation to developmental trauma. These factors include the nervous system and its components such as the Vagus nerve (as discussed in G. Music’s Nurturing Children: from trauma to growth using attachment theory, psychoanalysis and neurobiology) along with the brain and the idea of neuroplasticity.
The nervous system is responsible for the successful ‘delivery’ of electrical signals sent by the brain and spinal cord to numerous areas of the body to allow a movement or reaction to a stimuli. In particular, I would like to mention the area central to the Vagus nerve. This can be described as follows: “A sophisticated, myelinated (ventral) branch of our vagus nerve (the ‘smart vagus’) connects our brain stem, heart, stomach and other viscera, as well as our facial muscles. This is active in bonding, social communication, recognising faces and expressing emotions. It fires alongside feelings such as that warm glow in our chest when with someone we love, when feeling gratitude or deep ease” (Music, 2019, pg.107). To explain, this system can be unbalanced when fear or anxieties arise in the body during the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. Because of this response, the body shows characteristics such as increased breathing rate or sweating. In regard to trauma, we can suggest that children who have experienced trauma during development may be more susceptible to falling into this unbalanced state. Music explains this in further detail in reference to the case study of Mick (Music, 2019), who had lived a childhood of neglect in a dangerous environment that was as unpredictable as his parents. Mick had trouble later on in school with hostility and sensitivity, which led to him being in an almost constant state of disruption to the nervous system, with his ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response being engaged easily by the slightest form of threat. Mick is a prime example of a child who lived a life of mistrust and hopelessness. He missed out on important aspects of childhood that were essential to child development. Without effective maternal care and the with the dangerous environment he endured, the neurobiological approach gives us an insightful look into the idea that developmental trauma can stem from biological changes within the body as a result of a response to a fear inducing stimuli that manifests through the nervous system and ultimately, leads to major anxieties.
In addition to this, the body can have even more ways to respond to threat that can later be elevated by traumatic experiences e.g. the brain and the notion of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can be used to describe the theory that the brain is able to change and adapt throughout an individual’s life based on their experiences and needs. For example, a baby that was exposed to very loud sounds such as shouting might have a response of fear to similar sounds in the future. It is possible to see areas of the brain associated with these responses through an MRI scan, which tells us that brain activity around these areas is increased and has adapted to be more sensitive to fear and the sounds, people or objects the child associates with that stimuli. This is something that can continuously occur throughout a child’s development and as a result of this, the brain learns and becomes accustomed to different aspects of a child’s own experiences and so responds consequently to similar situations that trigger the anxieties associated with the stimuli. It is important to recognise this area of the nature argument because it prompts more thought into neuroscience as a form of explaining trauma. More research in this area as technology advances can help us learn more about brain functioning and the idea of the unconscious where manifestations, repressed memories and anxieties may stem from in adult life. As a whole, it provides an alternative way of thinking about developmental trauma and can be linked to other approaches such as attachment.
Attachment theory covers the basis of the mother-child relationship from birth onwards. It emphasises the importance of the innate needs for proximity between mother and child and most importantly the effect of the mother (caregiver) on the child’s development in terms of which attachment type that child will develop and how this can affect future relationships and social aspects of the child’s life. Bowlby was a key theorist within the realm of attachment theory with his work giving us a detailed, thought provoking insight into how important a primary caregiver is for the healthy development of a child. However, it can be argued that attachment theory supports both nature and nurture. Bowlby mentions the notion that children are born with innate behaviours that improve their chances of survival, he called these ‘care-eliciting behaviours’ that are essentially any kind of behaviour that attracts the attention of the caregiver e.g. kicking or crying. This links with his idea that the child’s development is heavily reliant on the mother for example, a mother that responds inconsistently to a child’s behaviour may result in the child having an anxious ambivalent attachment or a mother that is critical of the child’s needs or expressions can result in the child having an anxious avoidant attachment. “The major source of psychological experience takes place in the interactions between babies and their carers. Psychological experience is particularly heightened at times of anxiety, fear and stress. In other words, the intensity of mental state experiences is greatest whenever the attachment system is activated and the child exhibits care seeking behaviour” (Howe, 2005, p.4). In relation to development as a whole, attachment is fundamental for allowing a child to be emotionally in tune with itself and others as well as communicating effectively with others on an emotional level.
On the other hand, when looking at developmental trauma, it can be seen that children who have experienced neglect, for example, are often passive and their development is usually affected emotionally, physically and mentally. “Children’s whose carers fail to respond eventually give up; psychologically they shut down and cease to engage with those around them” (Howe, 2005, p.113). Here we can see that attachment has a nurture aspect to be argued. Although there are innate behaviours the child uses to gain the attention of the caregiver in order to survive, there still needs to be an aspect of nurture by the caregiver to establish a secure attachment for the child. When this does not occur, the child’s development is disrupted, as previously stated. It is important to consider the argument of both nature and nurture in this approach because both can have positive impacts when executed well by a parent or caregiver but, can easily have consequences if the child experiences abuse or neglect. Ultimately, a child experiencing either will be disadvantaged from a social point of view in adult life and will find it difficult to sustain or create relationships with other people. The child may struggle to relate to other people because they have failed to understand emotional connections from a young age. In addition to this, the anxieties produced as a result of an anxious or avoidant attachment may mean that the child feels unprotected and helpless in what others would deem as normal situations because the child has not had a parental figure to help them overcome or deal with a traumatic experience or anxiety.
It is clear that both the neurobiological approach and the attachment approach both show us fresh, different perspectives on the importance of both nature and nurture and how developmental trauma can be affected by either. However, each has their own disadvantages that should be considered when thinking about children’s development and what we can do in the future to resolve inner conflicts, anxieties and repressed feelings a child may be experiencing after developmental trauma. Rather than just the question of why or how developmental trauma occurs, we can start to investigate even further into how we can deal with it in an effective way that benefits each individual child.
The neurobiological approach has many practical applications that are more effective in finding a treatment for trauma caused during development. The advancement of technology goes hand in hand with the neurobiological approach as we research more and more into bodily functions through technology such as MRI scans that show us distinct areas of the brain and how each segment has an individual role within the body. It is important that we keep up with the changing technology as it can really tell us a lot about exactly where processes are taking place within the body, making it easier to pinpoint direct, physical changes that can be seen overtime, displaying patterns of behaviour or psychological and physiological change. Compared to other approaches, it is important to consider that the neurobiological approach is something that can be measured more easily in a scientific way as we have more evidence for biological processes that occur rather than psychodynamic approaches that revolve around the idea of the unconscious drives. The unconscious is something that is still under investigation constantly, the notion that development can so heavily rely on this could be considered unreliable. We haven’t even reached a point of knowing the answer to the question of: Does the unconscious actually exist? And if it does, where is it? The argument about where consciousness comes from is something that is still up for debate just as much as the debate for it existing as a whole. Does the conscious exist within the brain? Or is it another part of the self entirely? Does it even have physical form? When it comes to the neurobiological approach, we do not have to question the existence of something such as the brain or the nervous system because its existence is fact. Factual evidence is reliable, nature is reliable, and we can use this to better our research into development.
However, that is not to say that the neurobiological approach does not have its limitations compared to other approaches when it comes to explaining developmental trauma. One of the most important criticisms to consider, is that the neurobiological approach is rather reductionist. As with all kinds of biological approaches, the neurobiological approach heavily relies on the known. The research relies on genes, the brain, body components, inheritance and the nervous system. This kind of approach does not attempt to delve into the deeper meanings of developmental trauma and does not consider other aspects of life that a child may encounter during development that will have an effect on the process. While the known is reliable, as previously suggested, the unknown can still have its benefits. Take the attachment approach for example. The attachment approach considers the complex meanings of emotion and unconscious anxieties and bonds that a child can experience during childhood. We can clearly see a difference in behaviour between children with different types of attachment formed in youth and we can use this to explain why a child may be displaying anxious or anti-social behaviours. Understanding a child’s full background gives a broader view of the problems at hand and can help us attempt to resolve the child’s inner conflicts as well as prevent future emotional and psychological damage. In addition to understanding the importance of the unconscious and its deeper levels of meaning, as well as the surrounding factors such as the mother, the attachment approach does indeed attempt to incorporate the nature perspective.
Bowlby’s research especially, attempts to acknowledge the importance of innate bonds between mother and child as well as natural behaviours that allow for survival. Relating this point of view of the nature approach to the nurture approach instead proposes that the two are co-dependant or can co-exist. Rather than thinking of the two as separate or as rivals, perhaps it is important to consider that the two can complement each other in relation to development and how we view and understand trauma. To further this point, it can be considered that the nature nurture debate along with the different approaches to explaining trauma are neither right or wrong. Each approach gives a different outlook to explain certain behaviour(s) and can actually just be dependant on the child at hand and his or her(s) own experiences. For example, one child’s experiences may be better explained using only the neurobiological approach or nature debate compared to another individual whose experiences could be explained using a combination of the psychoanalytic and attachment approaches or the nurture debate. Why should there be a limit on how we interpret or use an approach or approaches to explain a child’s behaviour or trauma?
Overall, it is essential to consider that all approaches can be analysed in a way that sees them all as separate and having their own advantages and disadvantages, which of course must be considered if it is going to be used as a scientific or psychological explanation for behaviour. However, it is important not to assume that all children fit into one specific category or that every child’s behaviour can be explained using one approach. Having a more holistic view of the child and development as well as allowing for the fact that nature and nurture can complement one another, means that all aspects of the child’s background, understanding and well-being are considered rather than generalising children’s trauma. The neurobiological approach supports the nature argument well and provides reliable explanations for behaviour but, can also be so much more effective if we begin to combine our understanding of other approaches such as, the attachment approach previously discussed, to ensure that we as adults are beginning to open our minds to change and that this can actually be advantageous to children who have experienced trauma as it can provide the opportunity to delve deeper into the experiences and understanding of individual children who have yet to be heard. Recognizing that nature requires nurture will ultimately change our perception of development for the better.
Music, G. (2019). Nurturing Children: From Trauma to Growth Using Attachment Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Neurobiology. Routledge.
Howe, D. (2005). Attachment Across the Lifecourse: A Brief Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.
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