Reading time: 6min.

by Owen Johnson

Estates of mind – peeling back the hood

I always thought my formative years were at University, all that lazing around, drinking and throwing up. But I’ve found out they actually took place between the ages of 0 and 2, when I was doing exactly the same things.

Neuroscientists have recently discovered the importance of our first 1000 days, including time in the womb. Things like aggression, obesity and depression in adulthood, among many others, can be traced back to the quality of those early years.

This is how those Neuroscientists would probably explain it to their small children, and that’s pretty much the level I’m working at. So, it’s like we’re born with a brain full of millions of light switches. The switches for controlling your emotions and having empathy are at the front. The amount of switches that are flicked on will determine how active and capable that part of the brain becomes. The way they flick on is through interaction in our formative years. If a baby is raised with warmth, kindness and physical affection lots of switches will be flicking, but not all children are raised this way.

If a woman living in poverty, with mental health difficulties and no support network falls pregnant, she will most likely be given a house on a council estate. Although many estates are fantastic communities full of life and energy, others can be scary and stressful place to raise a small child, with high levels of crime and violence. With all this, she may find it hard to give her child enough emotional warmth and interaction.

Over the years this might take its toll. An innocent baby whose mother can’t provide for his or her needs can quickly grow into a guilty teenager who doesn’t care about anyone else’s. A recent long-term study accurately predicted which toddlers would go on to commit violent crimes as adults; just on their ability to control their emotions aged three.

After the England riots in 2011 the government set up a department to support troubled families. Unfortunately they incorporated a ‘payment by results’ system into the funding structure, which forced local councils tasked with running the projects into a moral dilemma. If they offered support to the most needy families they wouldn’t hit their targets. It’s easier to work with the boy who threw an egg at a bus than the prolific young offender from a chaotic family. So you pick the easy kid, make sure he doesn’t get in trouble for a year and claim your cash and then you can afford to keep paying your staff. Everyone’s a winner, apart from the struggling families who actually need the help.

So what does work? There’s a story of a foster mum in America years ago that was always sent the most dangerous and violent teenagers. Very quickly these boys would show drastic improvements. Psychiatrists and Child Therapists were baffled, and suspicious. They asked her what she was doing. She replied “I just show them love.” She explained that she would sit them on her lap, cuddle and gently rock them. They seemed to like it, so she kept doing it.

She was ahead of the game. Neuroscientists later discovered that if you don’t get a good babyhood first time round, it’s possible to go back and do it again. Her mummy-cuddles were flicking on their switches.

So the next time a hooded teen mugs you at knifepoint, it’s worth remembering that all he wants is your iPhone, but all he needs is a hug. Maybe wait till he puts the knife down before telling him though!