Why Love Matters | Sue Gerhardt

Summary of: Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain
By: Sue Gerhardt

Introduction

Why do love and affection play such a crucial role in shaping a baby’s brain? In Sue Gerhardt’s book, ‘Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain’, we dive into the biological and social implications of a baby’s early experiences and their long-term effects. Through a detailed analysis of the development and the importance of the orbitofrontal cortex, Gerhardt explains how positive social interaction molds the social brain, allowing us to understand and regulate complex emotions. The book also explores the consequences of stress and social deprivation on brain development, highlighting the importance of nurturing relationships from infancy. Delve into this book summary as we unpack the intricacies of the human brain and the inextricable bond between love and mental well-being.

The Evolution of the Social Brain

Humans have a triune brain, consisting of three stages of evolution. The social brain, which is responsible for empathy and complex emotions, is the last stage of this development. It allows us to go beyond instinctive behaviors and diversify our emotional range. Unlike other basic functions, the social brain is not present at birth and only develops through social interactions.

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once noted that tigers remain the same whether in solitude or a community of thousands. However, humans are wired differently. Our relationships with others alter our essence, according to Coleridge. This concept is now called the social brain.

The human brain didn’t develop solely in one stage; rather, it has three stages of evolution. The first stage is the brainstem, which regulates the essential life functions like respiration. The second stage, the limbic system, which is a mammalian addition, lets us experience basic emotions, nurture our offspring, and respond to stimuli. The final stage is the cerebral cortex, responsible for the social brain’s formation, making humans distinct from other mammals. This allows us to control our emotions, follow social cues, and experience empathy.

When we have emotional responses, the social brain helps us diversify them to an extensive range. Thus, we can identify feelings such as love, shame, guilt, sadness, happiness, and pleasure, instead of primal emotions. It’s like seeing the world in technicolor instead of black and white.

Newborn baby’s brains possess systems for survival, such as a functional nervous system, a visual system, and the brainstem’s core consciousness. Despite that, it does not possess the social brain. Development occurs as the child grows and interacts with surroundings.

How Social Interaction Shapes a Baby’s Brain

Babies lack the brain capacity to control their behavior, as their social brain only develops after birth. The orbitofrontal cortex, responsible for emotional intelligence, needs social experiences to develop. This developmental process is influenced by “experience dependency.” Social deprivation in the early years of life can cause permanent brain damage, as sociability depends on social interaction.

Pleasure & Development

The pleasure a baby derives from social interaction is crucial for cognitive and emotional growth, and it’s all thanks to the way pleasure stimulates the orbitofrontal cortex. Touch and looking at caregivers are two interlinked components that make these interactions pleasurable. When a baby is touched, held, and cuddled, his breathing deepens, and his heart rate and nervous system synchronize with that of his father. Similarly, when a baby gazes into his mother’s eyes, he can read her dilated pupils and set off a biochemical chain reaction in his brain. Beta-endorphins and dopamine are released, which enhance glucose uptake, insulin regulation, and tissue growth in the social and prefrontal brains. Pleasurable social interaction is foundational to human culture and explains why we hug bereaved people or seek comfort through a good massage.

Social Inputs and Brain Development

A baby’s brain is determined by a combination of genes and social patterns. While genes lay the blueprint, social inputs determine which connections are kept and which are pruned. Cognitive construction peaks between 6-12 months, and a dense network of cognitive possibilities is created. Then, pruning occurs, keeping only those connections that are useful in helping individuals navigate the world. The brain is an “anticipating machine,” providing expectations of likely outcomes to help individuals predict future events. Social experiences create expectations and get stored, while experiences that are not likely to happen again are discarded.

Understanding the Harmful Effects of Stress

Stress is often associated with being an adult and dealing with life’s challenges, but it can also damage our health and that of our babies. The human stress response is an evolutionary reflex that dates back to prehistoric times, where it was useful in dealing with life-threatening dangers. However, in modern society, stress is often caused by social status and acceptance. While short-term stress can be useful, prolonged stress can damage the immune system and lead to sickness. Adults can manage stress effectively, but babies are at risk if parents don’t manage their cortisol levels. Understanding the harmful effects of stress can help us take necessary steps to ensure a healthy life.

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