The Biology of Feral Survival
The human brain is a wonderous thing. 100 Billion neurons forming the most complicated system on the planet. There are certain basic components that we share with other animals, and other components that make us uniquely human, capable of remembering, imagining, co-operating, speaking and complex learning.
The Brain Core – – is the deepest and most primitive bit of our brains, it evolved first, and it develops first in a fetus. The deep brain core regulates things like respiration, body temperature and our blood pressure. We’re not aware of it doing its job, it just does it. It’s the bit of our brain that makes us breathe faster when we see a man with a bit stick raised and ready to strike.
The Limbic System – – is the part we share with other mammals, and regulates our basic emotional responses to stimuli, and motor control. This is the bit of our brain that learns that the man with the big stick is going to hit us. It’s the bit that makes us want to run away, or fight, or hide under the bed.
The Cortex – – we share with primates, but only humans possess the complex network of the frontal cortex. This is the bit responsible for abstract planning, speech and language, abstract thought and deliberate decision-making. It’s the bit that we would use to reason with the man with the stick, or to come up with a plan to hide the stick, or to call the police, or tie bedsheets into a rope ladder and escape.
Early trauma in an infant’s life can have permanent and far-reaching consequences. The less positive stimulation an infant gets in his or her early life, the less well their brain will develop. If development of the lower functions is impacted, then mid- and higher brain function will systematically fail to develop. If a child is isolated, deprived or abused, the basic way they think will be affected, and their ability to fully develop will be destroyed.
There are three aspects of brain development that particularly impact on understanding Feral Children cases:
- If a brain is under-stimulated, the brain won’t grow. Growth hormones are inhibited and body growth will also be stunted. Brain scans of neglected children sometimes show large voids where there should be healthy brain matter. These infants will fail to put on weight even if they have enough food, they won’t express interest in toys or surroundings, and are often unmoved by human attention. Sometimes they die, but most often these children survive in a kind of semi-responsive half-existence. The clinical term for this is ‘failure to thrive’.
The less capable a child is at processing information coming from the world (sights, sounds, activities, people talking, things changing or moving), the less capable they are at responding appropriately. If you don’t understand what the heck is going on, you might try and hide or run away, explode into a frustrated rage, hit out, cry, get scared, or just sit mute and confused. Perceptual processing problems are often the cause of emotional and behavioural problems.
- A baby’s brain is plastic, meaning that it changes very easily based on new experiences and stimuli, laying down new connections at every opportunity. When connections are activated and developed, they become stronger and more permanent. When they are not used, the brain cells literally die, and the connection withers and is lost. When it comes to brains, it really is a case of use it or lose it.
Dr Bruce Perry, a specialist in Child Trauma, has described how, when it comes to brains, a ‘state’ (a particular situation triggering a particular physiological and emotional response) becomes a ‘trait’ (a fixed pattern of trigger-response that gets laid down permanently as a pathway in the brain). As an individual gets older, his brain is less plastic, and patterns of response become ‘hard-wired’.
- There are critical periods of brain development for acquiring language, for developing coherent emotional responses, and for developing the ability to understand complex sensory information. If a child does not make an early connection between human interaction and some kind of positive reward (gurgle and kick your legs, and you’ll get a smile and fed by mum –vs-gurgle and kick your legs, and you get hit or ignored), then they might never develop the ability to connect with others, they might ignore positive stimuli, not make eye contact, and, at the most basic and damaged level, not understand emotion in others.
Brains change under prolonged stress. Functional stress responses evolved because they helped our ancestors escape or avoid danger and therefore stay alive.
Essentially, without having to consciously think about anything, your brain can orchestrate a full-body response to keep you alive: you see the lion, you don’t stop to assess specific zoological details, but instead run towards safety. Your brain increases respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, it triggers adrenaline and other hormones to flood your blood system, and makes you pump your arms and legs to power you in the correct direction. For the cortex, the ‘clever’ bit of your brain, to have a chance to impact your actions, it requires calm.
Now, when it’s a lion, running away can be a good basic plan. But in complex human social situations, a primitive stress-response might not be quite so helpful. Think of stage fright, or profuse sweating, or punching your job interviewer when she asks a difficult question.
For a child, there are two options, which I call
flight/hide – causing the child to act small, hopeless and unresponsive, because the deep, primitive bits of his brain are telling him to lie low, don’t attract any negative attention and play dead.
fight/shout – the child can be jumpy, aggressive and unable to concentrate on normal tasks, because the deep, primitive bits of his brain are telling him to stay alert, seek attention, fight and get the hell out of there.
But if an infant is exposed to multiple or prolonged stressful situations, the stress–response system can malfunction in two ways. Either it triggers shut-down, and the child gets stuck in flight/hide unresponsiveness OR the system becomes hyper-sensitive, exploding into fight/shout at the slightest trigger.
These are the same responses people suffering from post-traumatic stress can show.
But don’t children ‘bounce back’?
when it comes to children, with their squishy, plastic brains, there are two schools of thought – first, that a child can adapt more easily to the different stressors, and then ‘bounce back’ more easily when they are out of the bad situation.
Damage that can be caused to young brains can be irreparable – temporary responses result in permanent changes to the chemistry and architecture of the brain. And that affects how a child approaches every new situation, how they make decisions, and how their bodies and minds grow. Research in this area is ongoing, but it’s clear that some children seem able to develop normally despite traumatic experiences, whereas other children will be permanently affected. This is the concept of resilience.
The bottom line is that when we are conceived, a set of potentials for that life come together. Some are exploited or thwarted even before we are born. For example, if your mother is addicted to drugs, or is a victim of domestic violence, or survives without enough food while she is pregnant with you, it will impact your development.
A combination of genetic potential, physical development and environmental factors determine whether we become smart, functional and happy kids capable of loving, and reaching our potential.
[With thanks to Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the ChildTraumaAcademy in Houston, Texas, a specialist in working with the minds of damaged and maltreated children, http://www.childtrauma.org].