gmusic@nurturingnatures.co.uk

This blog is to critically introduce, and contextualise, new research findings from developmental research, neuroscience, attachment theory  and other areas of psychology that are topical or are likely to whet the appetite of  anyone interested. The aim is to discuss research which will feel relevant and which might even, if lucky, make a...

This blog is to critically introduce, and contextualise, new research findings from developmental research, neuroscience, attachment theory  and other areas of psychology that are topical or are likely to whet the appetite of  anyone interested. The aim is to discuss research which will feel relevant and which might even, if lucky, make a difference to how we approach our work or other areas of our lives.

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The good things that do not happen to children can be worse than the bad things that do

Yet another new study by a group of experienced researchers has shown just how devastating are the effects of early neglect on children’s development [1]. In this study children who had been reared in institutions where care had been minimal had their brains scanned and compared to a control group of  more average children, and also to children also reared earlier in the same institutions but who were randomly allocated to live in foster care. It was found that those reared in institutions had significantly diminished grey matter volumes in the cortex of the brain compared to those children who were never institutionalized, but also that the same low levels of grey matter were seen in those who had later been placed in foster care after institutional rearing. However interestingly those who were subsequently placed in foster care had greater levels of white matter, which was not the case for those who remained in institutions. In other words, some catch-up was possible, as seen in increased levels of white matter but not grey matter in the cortex. As Sheridan, the lead author, said, “We found that white matter, which forms the ‘information superhighway’ of the brain, shows some evidence of ‘catch-up .These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function.” In this study, children were randomly allocated to either remain in institutional care or be placed in foster care, which discounted a factor I often wonder about when working with families where a child has been adopted from abroad, the question being how come they chose that particular child and do some children have more hope and potential which elicits a wish to care for them? In this study it is clear that the differences in brain function is entirely down to early environmental conditions. This is one of several studies that have shown clearly how poor quality early institutional care can have devastating effects [2].

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Psychological damage and physical abuse linked to poverty

In the last couple of weeks we have seen new studies which have put more flesh on the bones of what we already know about the link between economic circumstances and mental health issues. One study  [1] by Judith Baer and colleagues from Rutgers University looked at 5,000 parents. Mothers who received free food or had a difficult time paying their bills were nearly 2.5 times more likely to have symptoms that would warrant a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, compared with those who were in better financial situations. Interestingly what the researchers seem to have found, using a structural equation model, is that it is the economic circumstances that were the main trigger for psychological symptoms which are quite serious. Poverty and not knowing where the next meal is coming from, not surprisingly in itself is a major contributor to anxiety levels.

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Violent video games and aggression

In the wake of another unthinkable massacre this week in Aurora Colorado most people will be wondering what motivated James Holmes. So far there are very few facts about him and his life. One thing we do know is that he did play a lot of video games.  It appears that he was particularly hooked on one called guitar heroes. The question of whether video games are harmful has been a controversial one for some time now, with researchers not agreeing. Maybe this is not surprising. Video-games are big business, and it is also true that they alone would not lead to such a shocking act, and presumably their use was as much a symptom as a cause.

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Childhood adversity and adult health problems, a costly link

At times of severe cuts to services it is worth pointing out that, if not treated, early experiences of maltreatment, abuse and neglect can cause terrible problems later on, problems that have a huge cost to society. It is increasingly common knowledge that adverse early experiences, like abuse, neglect and exposure to violence, can play havoc with people’s mental health and affect them right into adulthood. For example a massive recent study from the University of Liverpool  [1] analysed findings going back some 30 years, looking at 27,000 research papers and found conclusive evidence that early childhood trauma hugely increases the risks of these children growing into adults who will suffer from schizophrenia. The risk was at least 3 times greater for those abused, but the worse the trauma the more the likelihood, in some cases extreme trauma increasing the likelihood by up to 50 times. Another recently published study [2] described how early child maltreatment, whether sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect,  badly effects peoples’ later romantic relationships, leading people to feel less fulfilled in relationships, and much of the effect was mediated via serious self-criticism, as well as post-traumatic stress symptoms.

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Barclays, evolution and the neuroscience and psychology of greed

The latest scandal involving Bob Diamond and Barclays has alarmed swathes of the UK population, and many are asking if there no end to the damage that such unregulated financial power can do. Faith in our  institutions has clearly been steadily eroding, but this has accelerated in the wake of example after example of unscrupulous behaviour, the ripple effects of which cause pain and hardship to countless thousands but at the same time the many who are suffering feel increasingly powerless and  helpless. It can be no coincidence that this week saw the publication of a report showing that not only is membership of  political parties declining, and we are seeing a huge reductions in participation in  political activity of any kind, but  that this has come with the massive increase in corporate power which is seriously threatening democratic processes (http://www.democraticaudit.com/key-indicators-of-uk-democracy) .

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More on happiness and consumerism

A new study from San Francisco State University and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies  [1] casts a very particular slant on being a consumer by showing that people gain much more of a sense of happiness from purchasing life experiences than from buying material possessions. What the study shows is that it is the motivation behind what we buy which has the biggest effect on our happiness levels. If we buy things because we hope it will impress others, raise our status or prove something then the benefits of the purchase will be far more minimal. When people buy things or experiences because this fits with their desires, interests and values then they feel more competent, autonomous, less lonely and more fulfilled. This fits with a swathe of other studies such as a recent one of over 50,000 adults in Norway[2]  which found that those who engaged in more cultural activities, such as going to the theatre or art galleries, had better health, more life-satisfaction and lower levels of depression and anxiety. Being interested in things broader than oneself, and not just material rewards, is very clearly good for us. People who spend their money on experiences, such as holidays or cultural activities, tend to have higher levels of wellbeing and are generally also more optimistic, outgoing and happy  than those who spend their money more on consumer goods[3].

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