For the Batek people of peninsular Malaysia, infancy was a time of ‘indulgence’ and ‘constant physical contact’ (Endicott and Endicott, 2014). The infant’s cries were always responded to by a parent, or any adult or child nearby. The infant spent most of its time in a cloth sling on its mothers back or at her breast so the baby could nurse on demand. At night the infant slept next to the mother and breastfeeding would continue for three or four years. Fathers cuddled and held their children with as much enjoyment as mothers did. Other camp members also took an active part in cuddling, reciting rhymes and lavishing infants with affection. This Batek child-rearing method corresponds with what has been hypothesised to be followed by our hominid ancestors. Our evolutionary biology has attuned us to rich, relational and prosocial environments. There is evidence that hunter-gatherer parenting improves mammalian developmental trajectories (Holden et al., 2016, p.201).
Human brains are built to grow in communities with extended families with ‘artful social rituals’ (Trevarthen, 2019). Human well-being is based on the brain and body communicating sympathetically with other imaginations and emotions. The infant’s emotions and motives are adapted for a “rich evolving experience within a happy family supported by an intimate caring community of friends and neighbours who have a secure and creative traditional way of life” (Trevarthen, 2019, p.38). If disturbance weakens these impulses during the formation of body and brain, or if the environment does not support normal expectations for which the organism is adapted, chronic stress and psychopathology can result. The infant’s psychic powers are regulated in ‘intimate and lively’ relationships and destructive events in these relationships create trauma and disorder. The fate of the infant depends on how the society of adults manage work and life in the whole community with its technology, stresses, conventions and social conduct. The causes of child psychopathology cannot be understood without reference to these wider influences beyond the child. Brofenbrenner’s ecological model demonstrates that we should study processes and systems at multiple levels and how these levels interact to better understand risks for disorders (Venta et al., 2021). While, according to Schore (2019a), it is the attachment relationship that is wiring up the developing right brain, this relationship is being impacted by more ‘distal’ factors at macro-levels.
Decades of research shows that ancient societies knew how to facilitate optimal development in children (Porges, 2019). These societies did this by giving cues of safety through family and community. Cues of safety are delivered through voices and facial expressions of the social engagement system of other humans that are in a regulated state (Porges, 2011). Tronick states: “The most widely accepted model of the caretaking environment of the human infant at birth and into the second year of life is that it should provide relatively continuous care and almost constant contact between the infant and mother, with frequent nursing bouts of short duration” (2007, p102). A lack of maternal care or multiple extensive care-giving has detrimental effects on all development. This model integrates evolutionary and cross-species perspectives with psychological views of infant development and maternal caregiving. In hunter-gatherer groups and traditional human societies, infants are raised under the ‘watchful eyes’ of a small group of collaborative caregivers who share the role of attachment figure (Siegel, 2012). This enables the child to develop a wide range of survival strategies. Humans need the support of a network of caregivers to provide collaborative nurturance.
Bowlby (1969) claimed that a biological structure takes the form that is determined by the environment in which the system has been functioning throughout its evolution. He calls this the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ (EEA). It is only within this environment can the system be expected to operate efficiently. Bowlby argued that much could be learned by studying patterns of childcare in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies because they more closely resembled the EEA than industrial societies (Hewlett and Lamb, 2005). Bowlby warned against modern child-rearing practices that deviated dramatically from the environment in which humans were evolutionarily adapted. Bowlby’s concept of the EEA describes the ‘psychological space’ that a culture creates to scaffold the mother-infant emotional bond through the evolutionary mechanism of attachment (Schore, 2013). This space is either ‘expansive and facilitating’ or ‘constrictive and inhibiting’.
Anthropology gives a unique perspective on human nature by applying “phylogenetic depth and cross-cultural breadth” which exposes tensions between modern infant care and the evolved biology of mothers and infants (Ball and Russel, 2013). Ethnographers have described a set of generalisations called ‘the hunter-gatherer childhood model’ (Konner, 2005). These descriptions suggest that modern-day childcare practices are discordant with those in the EEA – something which could have developmental implications.
Trevarthen (2013) argues that the healthy brain seeks to form creative relationships. This is what love is about and why “it is cruel to treat an infant without joy and imagination” (Trevarthen, 2013, p.203). Mothers, fathers and others should be the infant’s companions in fantastic story-making. A healthy mind builds ‘proud’ memories in loving company with trusted others making a good story. Loneliness, shame, depression and sadness signal the loss of this collective story making. Psychopathology is a deep confusion in self-awareness and the loss of the ability to communicate sympathetically with other human imaginations.
Our social engagement system uses cues from face-to-face interactions to calm our physiological state and shift from flight-flight to trust (Porges, 2021). The effectiveness of the social engagement system to down-regulate fight/flight behaviours requires practice – starting early in development through play. Play, like other forms of co-regulation, requires reciprocal and synchronous interactions while using the social engagement system as a regulator of mobilisation behaviour. Play with a toy or computer lacks face-to-face interaction and will not provide this regulatory exercise. Porges argues that we need to appreciate the importance of face-to-face synchronous interactions as opportunities to exercise the social engagement system. Play is a building block of attachment and an expression of its regulatory function which transforms an environment into an enriched environment (Schore, 2019a).
In optimal contexts ‘protoconversations’ continue into the second year when the toddler has a great need for novelty and a burgeoning playful imagination begins to develop (Schore, 2021). With increased right brain capacity, the intersubjective protoconversation takes the form of intersubjective imaginative games, internalised dialogs, and ‘conversational play’. Schore (2017a) argues that in the second year of life day care needs to provide for these experiences and this is done usually in a one-to-one way. Greenspan and Brazelton (2009) write that ‘long, empathetic, nurturing interactions’ are needed to develop regulatory capacity. The idea that relationships are essential for regulation needs more emphasis when considering developmental settings. The interactions a child needs can only occur with a loving caregiver who has lots of time to give to the child. They note that a busy day-care worker usually won’t have the time for these long interactions. Equally, an overwhelmed, stressed, depressed or time-pressured parent will struggle to facilitate this. To listen and respond to feelings takes time (Gerhardt, 2014). Goal-oriented modern societies that emphasise achievement create a ‘hurry sickness’ in which creating time for relationships becomes more challenging.
Researchers have supported an emotion regulation theory of play on the basis of play deprivation studies (Gray, 2013). Learning to control emotions may be one of the primary purposes of play. Over the past half century there has been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to play in the US and other countries. During this time there has been a continuous rise in child and adolescent anxiety, depression, impulsiveness and narcissism. Gray suggests that the rise in these psychopathologies may be linked, at least in part, to the decline in play.
In order to reverse the negative trends in well-being, science needs to develop an understanding of the psychobiological needs of humans as a result of their evolutionary nature (Narvaez et al., 2013). Human evolutionary history has shaped humanity’s basic needs (Noble et al., 2018). To establish baselines for optimal development we must understand that evolution has brought about needs and fulfilment of those needs. Evolutionary systems theory holds that humans inherit culture, ecology and a developmental system. Every animal self-organises based on experiences which aim to fulfil basic needs. The developmental system inherited for the young is important for fulfilling basic needs and helping offspring grow in a species-typical way. Similar to all animals, humans have evolved a nest or niche that matches the maturational schedule for the offspring. The human evolved developmental niche (EDN) is based on the social mammalian nest that evolved 30 million years ago, but has added some features.
Mammals need ‘abundant’ nurturing care for optimal postnatal development (Narvaez et al., 2013). The human EDN is intensive due to human immaturity – we are born 9-18 months early and so require minimum distress postnatally as this is when the physiological systems are establishing their basic parameters (Noble et al., 2018). The common features of the EDN have been taken from small-band hunter-gather communities from around the world that are representative of prehistory or human society in 99% of human genus history. The characteristics of the EDN are: soothing perinatal experiences; extensive social support and positive climate for mother and baby; responsiveness to needs and minimising infant distress; lots of affectionate touch like holding, rocking, and carrying; extensive breast-feeding; allomothers (‘other mothers’) and a ‘village’ that raises the child; and lots of self-directed free play in the natural world with play mates of multiple ages.
In human studies maternal touch was found to decrease cortisol release and improve immune function (Noble et al., 2018). A lack of breastfeeding in the first week of life is linked with greater depression and withdrawal. Allomothers are found to be critical supports to promoting a mother’s responsive attention to her infant. Self-directed play facilitates the growth of the orbitofrontal cortex. A lack of the EDN is referred to as ‘undercare’, which leads to toxic stress. The presence of EDN components in the childhood of adults is linked with greater sociality, good mental health and morality. To understand psychopathology, it is important to have a solid foundation of what healthy development is (Narvaez et al., 2014). Understanding what optimal child-rearing involves can help to create change in social structures and support systems that facilitate well-being in human development.
Current parenting practices diverge from this ancient norm, potentially undermining healthy human development (Narvaez et al., 2013b). The loss of traditional cultural practices like extended periods of attachment bonding, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and alloparental care may be contributing to problems in health and social well-being in modern societies. Some childrearing advice encourages parents to let their children cry themselves to sleep in an effort to help them learn to self-soothe at an early age, rather than gradually acquiring these skills through mutual regulation with the caregiver. There are psychological and neurochemical reasons why a practice like this may be linked to the on-going epidemic of depression. Narvaez et al. (2013b) argue that “evolved, expected care and mammalian needs are the default grounding for evidence-based examination of how different environments contribute to optimal functioning” (p.463). This means modern environments must be compared to this ancient baseline.
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