A bit of a headache over neuroscience

I wrote at the end of March about the impact of work on brain development to understanding about parent abuse, and so I initially found the recent very public spat about the validity of claims being made for neuroscience rather unsettling. A week further on, after hours spent reading and rereading, the main lessons to be taken away from the controversy about the use and abuse of neuroscience seem to be: to think about the agenda of the person writing, not to make extravagant claims for something, and to read things carefully before commenting!

Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian on 26th April, asked whether the claims being made for neuroscience in supporting changes to adoption practice, the removal of children from their families in child protection procedures and in the imposition of early intervention programmes could be justified; arguing that neuroscientific ideas and understanding had been hi-jacked by those with a particular political agenda, and that some of the claims being made might be exaggerated or without a strong evidence base.

Neuroscience has been used for a while to back up early intervention work, particularly in the US around programmes to prepare children for school, and increasingly within the UK to support family intervention projects. You can hear an audio recording here of John Bruer, (author of The Myth of the First Three Years) from a lecture at Birkbeck College, University of London in March this year, in which he documents a history of its use. Barnardos’ incoming Chief Executive, Javed Khan, draws attention to the first years of life as being crucial to brain development and uses knowledge about this to evidence their Five to Thrive model across early years services. Interestingly, a number of writers comment on the way neuroscience is used to give credibility (read “it’s proper science”) to pre-existing understanding about child development and behaviour from the social science (“not proper science”) field.

Zoe Williams has claimed that she was herself misunderstood. Nevertheless, the original article has brought many responses, some written in a spirit of great passion, many from experts in the field, defending the now mainstreamed understanding about neuroscience. Distilling the essence of these, a number of agreed points emerge.

Practitioners with many years of experience do not need neuroscience to tell them that traumatic early experiences can have a profound effect on emotional and behavioural development and on dealing with stressful situations. Neuroscience can though help to make sense of previously observed phenomena.

It is not accurate to state that brain changes associated with early adversity are irreversible.

Some children are left for too long in appalling conditions.

The use of neuroscientific explanations to suit an ideological agenda, individualising family difficulties, offering alarmist scenarios and drawing attention away from the effects of poverty, are to be deplored.

Neuroscientific understanding applies equally to all social classes and should not be used to suggest that the working class mother, by her very nature, offers a poorer nurturing experience.

Misuse of neuroscience does not invalidate the body of knowledge as a whole.

I find that last point reassuring as it can be alarming to find yourself in the middle of an argument when you don’t personally have all the data at your finger tips. I have emerged from the discussion with a bit of a headache, but all the more committed to the future careful use of evidence in any discussion.

Further reading:

A response to Zoe Williams by Graham Music and Sue Gerhardt

Patrick Butler in the Guardian: Policymakers seduced by neuroscience to justify early intervention agenda




1 Comment

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One response to “A bit of a headache over neuroscience

  1. I’ve been concerned for some time about over-enthusiastic application of small-scale preliminary research in brain development. Especially when early stress is seen as making irreversible changes. I found John Bruer’s book “The myth of the first three years” very interesting.
    Like most research on parenting and child development the research is all correlational. Thankfully no one is doing experimental studies on childhood trauma! How hard is it to take into account genetics, effects in the womb (which we are just recently learning about), physical correlates of poor care in the first year or so, social correlates, and later environment? It’s hard to imagine anything more traumatic than lots of hospital admissions and operations for an infant who has no clue what is going on, but many such children don’t show long term issues similar to those with DV in their families. If a child is traumatised in the first year, e.g. by exposure to DV, does that just go away? Any long term differences need to take into account the fact that a child who has one or more abusive or neglectful parents is not likely to then have a normal childhood or adolescence. I regularly see the psychological and social effects of DV 10 to 15 years later. The effects are very varied indeed. The positive outcomes in the vast majority of adoptions don’t suggest that early trauma usually causes irredeemable brain changes.
    Since most children throughout history would have had some trauma in their childhoods I can’t see how we would have evolved to be so hyper-sensitive to stress. Then there is the question of how much stress is too much. Like exposure to germs strengthening the immune system, there is probably an optional amount of stress, which is not likely to be zero, but this will differ for different children.
    I am not in any way questioning that exposure to DV, abuse or neglect are not extremely serious, but using possible brain damage to emphasise this is harmful to the children, and also often stigmatises their mothers when they have been victims of DV.
    The over-emphasis on early psychological development serves to blame mothers and create a climate of hopelessness.
    It is almost amusing how some of this brain stuff is interpreted. I see the fact that adolescent brains are changing rapidly as a positive, and talk to them about how they are going to change and can shape the kind of person they will become. Since their frontal lobes are somewhere between child and adult how does this equate to expecting them to have more problems and be less empathic than children?
    I’ve heard a respected parenting ‘guru’ claim that problems in adolescence are ‘hard-wired’ into their developing brains! Brains do not have hardware – they are squidgy-ware.
    The good news on Neuroplasticity doesn’t seem to have reached some of the biggest fans of neuroscience!

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