According to Sue Gerhardt, brains are shaped by experience and the quality of care we receive as babies affects our neurobiology. Early brain development is very rapid and sets up neural pathways and biochemical systems that we will continue to use throughout the lifespan. Genes are not the all-powerful directors of our lives that they are often depicted as, but according to epigenetic studies, are activated by the environment. It is not just parenting which impacts our psychological development but the society and culture too. Babyhood is not just an issue for individuals, but it is important for the whole of society to understand the link between infancy and the kind of world we create.
Early experience plays a central role in setting up our emotional templates. Moral values are often less about conscious ideas we have but more about the unconscious assumptions that we develop from early life. Every society passes on its beliefs and attitudes, initially through parenting, and then through a wider array of influences. The ‘social unconscious’ arises out of power structures which shape our values without being aware of it.
Currently, writes Gerhardt, we live in an emotionally impoverished culture which is the result individualism and consumerism eroding social bonds. For the poor this impoverishment may manifest as violent crime while for the rich it looks like excessive consumerism and fraudulent behaviour. At both ends, these behaviours, born out of social poverty, create further social destruction.