A new study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that some moms get a natural high when they hear their baby’s cry. For others, however, the cry triggers a part of the brain that produces feelings of disgust.
The difference, interestingly, has nothing to do with that particular mother-baby bond.
Instead, each mother’s reaction depends on how bonded she was with her own mother.
The study, out of Baylor University, sought to uncover neurological reasons for child neglect. In the first part of the study, 30 mothers underwent brain scans while looking at pictures of their 7-month-olds with different expressions. In another part of the study, the volunteers had their blood drawn before, during and after playing with their child. Finally, volunteers’ attachments to their own mothers and caregivers was also assessed.
For mothers who had secure attachments to their own mothers, images of their babies with happy or sad faces produced a reward signal in the brain — the natural high. Blood tests also showed interacting with their kid triggered a surge of oxytocin — the body’s endorphins needed for breastfeeding, chilbirth, etc.
Mothers who had an insecure attachments in childhood didn’t get the oxytocin surge or the reward signal. Rather, the insula, a region of the brain associated with disgust, unfairness or pain was activated.
So what does all this mean? Bad parenting is the mother’s fault and her mother’s fault and her mother’s mother’s fault and so on? Because that’s what it looks like.
Lead researcher, Dr. Lane Strathearn, concludes that it showed how a “mother’s own experience in childhood may shape how she responds to her baby’s needs.”
That hardly sounds earth-shattering for anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past 100 years. But what’s interesting is that there’s a very specific chemical and physiological response — and not necessarily one of degrees: it’s either you get the surge or you don’t; either the reward region is triggered or the disgust one.
What researchers found was that, basically, a childhood without a close attachment to a caregiver could mean some mothers’ involuntary response to their children’s emotions automatically get interpreted by their brains as something negative. Neglect — or a less than lovey-dovey response to a crying child — isn’t a personal and/or moral failing. In fact, considering all that we do for brain problems (depression, for example), child neglect now sounds as if, in some cases, it could be a treatable condition!
This makes me wonder, too, whether there could be work-arounds. The human brain is famously malleable. Could a mother raised in neglect learn to get a natural high from her baby’s cries? Sounds promising.