Unhappy childhood is memorized deep in the brain
Does the brain of such individuals get wired differently compared with those who have experienced a healthy childhood?
Childhood maltreatment affects both the structure and the function of the brain. Imaging studies found abuse type-specific effects on the developing brain. For instance, exposure to parental verbal abuse has been linked to white matter abnormalities in auditory brain areas and adults who were sexually abused during childhood had a reduced gray matter thickness in portions of the somatosensory cortex representing the genital area.
Maltreatment has been consistently associated with an attenuated response in reward-related brain areas and elevated reactivity in regions that are involved in detecting and responding to threatening sights and sounds.
How much of the brain is known to scientists?
Compared to the knowledge 100 years ago, we have made enormous progress in our understanding of the brain. For instance, today we can use non-invasive stimulation of certain brain areas as a treatment for psychological disorders such as depression.
On the other hand, however, the brain is an extremely complex organ, that is estimated to have on average about 86 billion neurons. Even with the best neuroimaging methods in humans, today we usually measure activity in brain areas that contain thousands or millions of neurons. Especially for complex psychological processes such as decision-making or emotions, we know very little about the role of single neurons.
It also should be emphasized that most scientific methods in humans allow only correlative conclusions. We can say that a specific brain region or network is active during a task, but the causal contribution is often unclear.
Is psychiatric treatment and psychological counselling, in some part, based on guesswork and intuition?
It requires a long training in addition to the psychology studies, to work as a psychotherapist.
It requires long training in addition to the psychology studies, to work as a psychotherapist. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidence-based therapy that focuses on changing unhelpful cognitive distortions. Therapists learn certain protocols how to deliver this therapy and they undergo supervision by other therapists. Thus, in my opinion, training is much more important than intuition.
Some psychologists believe nearly 80 percent of the neglect and emotional abuse comes from the mothers and is mainly directed towards their daughters. What is your opinion?
It is very difficult to get reliable numbers about the extend of childhood maltreatment. Established risk factors of neglect are mental health problems (particularly substance abuse) and unemployment of the parents. Studies that report neglect and emotional abuse often focus on the role of the mother, but this could reflect a reporting bias because mothers are more often the primary caregiver for children.
We clearly need a better understanding of possible sex differences in childhood maltreatment, both in terms of parental risk factors and the consequences for the child.
Do daughters of such mothers come to expect less out of life?
Childhood emotional maltreatment has often been linked to insecure adult attachment.
Childhood emotional maltreatment has often been linked to insecure adult attachment. Individuals who experience early abuse or trauma appear to exhibit inconsistent attachment behaviors marked by high levels of both attachment anxiety and avoidance.
Thus, sometimes they may appear clingy and dependent and then they can also be aloof and distant. These behaviors can be a burden and strongly affect life satisfaction, but not every person with trauma experiences will expect less out of life.
Do they also paradoxically become over demanding in their close relationships such as with their partners/spouses?
The effects of traumatic childhood experiences on romantic relationship can be diverse.
The effects of traumatic childhood experiences on a romantic relationships can be diverse. A recent study found that emotional childhood maltreatment was linked to elevated self-criticism, which in turn was related to higher levels of attachment avoidance and finally reduced relationship satisfaction.
As such, negative self-perception could have a stronger impact on close relationships. It should be noted, however, that these empirical studies usually describe group statistics that are not always true for every individual.
Similarly, is the neglect and abuse directed at the sons, mostly from their fathers?
Men are more likely to commit physical abuse than women, while women are more likely to commit emotional abuse. However, as mentioned above, the literature regarding perpetrators of maltreatment is mixed and many studies examining emotional abuse have focused predominately on mothers.
On an overall basis is it mostly the female child that experiences a difficult childhood, even in the developed countries?
Women are actually twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over the lifetime, the risk of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, varies significantly between sexes. Women are actually twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. So why is the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder so much higher in women? This may be caused by a greater exposure towards certain types of trauma, such as interpersonal offense and stronger peritraumatic dissociation.
Women also have different ways to deal with stress and are more likely to overcome difficulties with avoidance- and emotion-based strategies. Furthermore, there is evidence for sex-specific differences in the neurobiological basis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Apart from psychotropic medications and counselling, does meditation or mindfulness help and can it sometimes replace medication?
Numerous studies have tested interventions with a mindful component, such as meditation and yoga, in youth or adults with childhood traumas. Most studies found some improvements. These interventions may be particularly promising in gaining conscious control over hyperactive alarm systems. Depending on the severity of the trauma and resilience of the individual, no therapy may be required.
In severe cases, however, when individuals develop burdening psychological disorders, psychotherapy and/or medications can be necessary and helpful to deal with the traumatic experiences.
Are there any specific mental or physical exercises that victims of a difficult childhood can do, to counter the effects or even to rewire their brain?
Physical activity is known to have a positive impact on psychological well-being.
Physical activity is known to have a positive impact on psychological well-being. It can reduce the symptom severity in depression and anxiety disorders and improve health and life satisfaction. I would be very cautious if someone claims that some exercise was designed to specifically rewire the brain or target very specific symptoms. Usually, these claims are not based on scientific evidence.
This is surely not an easy area you have taken on in life. What was your self-motivation and who inspired you?
I am fascinated by the question of how complex social phenomena such as friendship and love, but also hatred and sorrow are generated in the brain. In the fields of bio- or medical psychology we study the interaction between biological and environmental factors and I hope that a better understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying these social phenomena can help improve the lives of traumatized individuals and patients with psychological disorders.
During my undergraduate studies at the Ruhr-University Bochum, my biopsychology professor, Onur Güntürkün, inspired me with his scientific passion and curiosity to pursue a career in this research. I am also very grateful for the support of Prof. René Hurlemann, the head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oldenburg, with whom I have worked for many years.
Please tell us about your growing up years.
I grew up in a relatively rural area in the north of Germany. After my high school diploma, I knew that I wanted to study, but I found several subjects exciting. I decided to study psychology with a focus on economic psychology (e.g. human resources) but after my B.Sc. I switched my major focus to cognitive neuroscience because the methods in this field like brain imaging (e.g. with functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI) fascinated me. Later I decided to pursue my PhD in this field.
How do you spend your time while not working?
To be honest, a career in science can be very time consuming, so there is not much spare time left. Nevertheless, I have some very common hobbies like reading, watching series, traveling (often this can be combined with a scientific conference) or board games with friends.
Our readers are mainly the youth in different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
Although it sounds stereotypical, I would suggest following your passion. Research can be very hard because it often includes failures and frustration. High frustration tolerance and the ability to wait for delayed rewards are therefore central for any researcher. If you find out what really motivates you, it will be much easier to achieve your goals.
Photo: From the archive of Dr. Dirk Scheele
Read also the part I. of the interview with Dr. Scheele: