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human mind is not essentially a blank slate at birth, we can relate it to being much like a computer that has not yet been programmed (Pinker, 2001). While there is a potential "preparedness" for the young child to develop a number of skills based on genetic influences (e.g., language acquisition), these skills will not fulfill their genetic potential without important environmental stimulation. While the nature vs. nurture debate still lives in some circles, research has demonstrated that it is the interaction of the environment and genetic influences that results in a good deal of human behavior (Siegler, DeLoache, & Eisenberg, 2006). Therefore, if the neonate mind is like a computer with certain capacities and potentials (genetic and biologic "hardware"), we can also infer that the environment provides a good deal of the psychological "software" that shapes the individual during early in life. Exposure to many of these programs occurs early in an individual's development and become resistant to change as the person matures. Early attachments, relationships, and interactions with adult caregivers are then extremely important in the development of the child. Within that timeframe, the period of infancy and early childhood are important in human development. Therefore, in many important respects, the future psychological health of the individual depends on the whether their early environments provide support and nurture their growth and development.
In order to understand the great variation or potential in human behavior present at birth we can first look at the research that has investigated how a dysfunctional relationships in infancy or how a complete lack of secure relationships can affect the developing infant. Much of the early research on infant relationships focused on primates. The classic studies of Harry Harlow and associates have highlighted how an early lack of secure attachments to adult caregivers can lead to severe disruptions in the social development of monkeys (e.g., Harlow & Suomi, 1971). Prior to Harlow's research, the common academic advice to parents was to limit or avoid bodily contact with children as an attempt to avoid spoiling them. By today's standards this notion seems ridiculous, but it was supported by the dominant paradigm in psychology at that time, the behaviorist school of psychology, and it seemed to be a reasonable assumption at the time. Behaviorists were only interested in observable behavior and believed that emotions or cognitions were unimportant in human behavior. Based on their models of learning and behavior they believed that external reinforcement such as feeding was the most important factor in the formation of a mother-infant bond. Harlow questioned this notion. Harlow's classic experiment removed two groups of baby monkeys from their mothers at birth. The infant monkeys were exposed to either a wire monkey covered with terrycloth (comfort surrogate mother) that provided no food or a wire mother that provided food in the form of a baby bottle containing milk (food surrogate mother). The second group of monkeys had a terrycloth mother that provided food and a wire mother that did not. Despite the condition they were in the young monkeys clung to the terrycloth mother whether it provided them with food or not and only chose the wire surrogate mother for feeding. After feeding the monkeys would return to the terrycloth surrogate mother. Even more interesting is that when an alarming stimulus was present the monkeys ran to the terrycloth mother for protection, no matter which mother provided them with food. When the monkeys were placed in an unfamiliar room with their terrycloth mother, they clung to it until they felt secure enough to explore; however, when placed in an unfamiliar room with the wire mothers they froze in fear, cried, curled up in a corner, or sucked their thumbs. The monkeys gained weight at equal rates despite which mother fed them, indicating that all the monkeys were getting equal nutrition. In later experiments, monkeys reared in isolation but fed well were found as adults to have severe emotional, social, and adjustment problems. Based on his research Harlow's conclusions were that a lack of contact comfort is psychologically stressful to infants and infant primates need more than their basic nutritional needs met to develop properly.
Harlow's experiments would obviously be unethical to reproduce in humans, but there is evidence that his findings are applicable to human infants. For example Spitz (1945) reported the effects of a lack of human contact on human infants in a foundling home where there was a large infant to nurse ratio and the babies were not handled. Instead they were left in their cribs and handled briefly when fed. He found that the developmental imbalance caused by a lack of contact with humans in the infants during the children's first year produced psychosomatic damage that could not be reversed, the so called "failure to thrive" condition in infants denied human interaction. Many of these infants had multiple health issues, were sickly, or died at a very young age even though their nutritional requirements were met. The results of Spitz's study were actually one of the motivating factors for later research by Harlow and others.
There have also been case studies of human children denied social contact at an early stage. Perhaps the most famous of these was the case of Genie, a child who spent the first 13 years of her life locked inside a bedroom strapped to a potty chair. Genie was a victim of one of the cruelest cases of social isolation ever recorded. She had little human contact for her formative years and was eventually discovered and attempts were made to socialize her. When she was found she was essentially mute. Genie was taken in by foster parents who attempted to teach her to speak and to teach her basic social graces. In time she was able to learn rudimental aspects of language but never developed intellectually past an early childhood stage (Jones, 1995). Moreover, she was transferred to a series of foster care environments that were abusive and eventually returned to being mute. Genie's case and the children observed by Spitz indicate how a lack of a supportive nurturing environment can affect development and highlight need for a supportive environment and positive human contact during childhood development.
Based on the aforementioned studies and many others the evidence suggests that a supportive and nurturing environment is crucial for the developing brain (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008). From a developmental perspective most critical periods, times when an organism's development is undergoing a drastic change fostered by genetic effects and are most sensitive to environmental influences occur in childhood (Siegler, DeLoache, & Eisenberg, 2006). Such critical periods can be biologically based as in the case with language acquisition in humans, psychologically based as in the case with attachment formation, or both as evidenced in the case of Genie. If the child does not receive the proper environmental stimulus at these critical periods it may be difficult or even impossible for the child to develop adequately. In principle, infancy is a period of biological and psychological development when neurological pathways and networks are formed that typically last a lifetime (Dennet, 1998; Richardson, 2000). It has been demonstrated that during the ages of three to five years old the brain is more reactive to environmental influences than at later stages of development (Perry, 2002). This is due to fact that human brains are not mature at birth, but instead human infants require a long period of protection and attention. During this period human infants are in frequent contact with caregivers. The infant's caregiver's reactions and interactions with the infant during this period significantly shape brain development. Perry (2002) notes that as the mother touches and soothes the infant the bond between the two creates sensory stimuli that are translated into neural activities in the developing brain that become responsible for later socio-emotional communication and bonding. Children who become more verbal have parents that engage in direct communication with them and take pleasure in interacting with them. In childhood it is the positive relationships with caregivers that offer children the best environment for optimal brain development. Many of the most important behavioral patterns established in infancy and early childhood relate to the manner in which the child learns to trust others and respond to others within intimate relationships (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008).
It would follow then that individuals who had the benefit of nurturing and supportive environments early in life establish better relationships with others and also collaborate better with others, especially in the early educational environment (Brehony, 2000). This is most likely due the incorporation of implicit internal "working models" that are continually reinforced by positive transactions with parents. These working models help define for the developing person how to view the world, how to predict future outcomes, and how to interpret new experiences. As stated these models are implicit, that is that they are often activated quickly, implemented automatically, and often not open to verbal or logical debate. Children before the age of ten years old…[continue]
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