Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Ontogenetic Development

All parents witness changes in their children’s behavior during the course of their development. Infants’ behavioral responses during the first three months are reflexive in nature, i.e. the Moro, swimming, stepping, palmar grasping, Babinski reflexes. These reflexive behaviors are reflective of maturing brain regions that are specialized for mediating these behaviors, like subcortical (thalamic and brainstem) and spinal regions. As infants mature into the toddler years they gain motor expertise, discerning abilities for perceiving greater and greater perceptual detail, increasing attention span, and improving abilities for making multiple associations between contingencies (sensory, motivational, motor, etc.) and communicating one’s needs, thoughts, and behaviors.

Behavioral maturation is also associated with age-specific regional brain maturation. Brain regions undergoing active development during the first two-three years of ontogenic development center in cortico-subcortical and corticolimbic regions. These regions are not only actively involved in the development of motor behaviors, but also emotion, self-concept, assessments of self during social interactions, and a sense of oneself during interpersonal development. If certain brain regions that are responsible for motor development are not sufficiently stimulated and behavioral autonomy is not sufficiently encouraged, infants’ motor responses will likely be delayed. Certain brain regions are also stimulated in a positive manner during attaching and rewarding social interpersonal interactions. If this expectation for social need fulfillment is breached, infants will likely stimulate stress neurocircuitry. This is accompanied by negative emotion (characterized by infant crying), perceived distress, negative self-concept, etc. As indicated earlier Michael J. Meaney’s animal research has demonstrated that optimal infant handling and nurture reduces stress responsivity for the duration of an organism’s life. The first three years may thus be considered a critical period for the development of positive emotion and self-concept that will characterize a person’s sense of self throughout one’s life on earth and determine the state of future stress responsivity.

Based on regional maturation toddlers and young children do not need early alphabet or arithmetic training, they need loving and attaching relationships to foster positive senses of selves during social interpersonal interactions. Time devoted to teaching toddlers early academics not only stimulates intellectual abilities, but also supports their emotional development in response to positive social interactions with a parent or significant adult. Children probably extract social interaction processes from interactions with parent, no matter what their nature.

The developmental timetable for acquiring skills and abilities is thus preprogrammed and a manifestation of maturing brain regions. Parental expectations of early child responses should be sensitive to this ontogenic developmental timetable. A parent should not expect a child to react in a manner that is not commensurate with this timetable, as this may be perceived as stressful to the child. This may set the stage for increased stress responsivity and increase the vulnerability for later psychiatric and autoimmune symptom expression into adulthood.