The Neuroscience of Bonding & Breastfeeding: Sensory Deprivation and the Developing Brain

James W. Prescott Origins of Love and Violence Part One from Touch the Future on Vimeo.


The last decade of research reveals a reciprocal dynamic between the brain and the environment. Change the environment and you change the brain, a sweeping statement, but true. Environment and brain are two sides of a single coin.

Our body was planted and evolved in a rich multi-sensory natural environment and expects to be fed rich multi-sensory experiences. Sensory deprivation, that is limiting, diminishing or removing all together the quality and/or quantity of one or more sensory experience very early in life, as the brain is establishing its foundation for life, may alter basic patterns that brain will use for a lifetime.

Dating back to the 1960s this reciprocal relationship between the brain and environment was studied in the laboratory by observing the impact of sensory deprivation on the developing brain. Harry Harlow’s famous mother-infant separation studies ushered in a cascade of research exploring how sensory experiences promote or retard brain growth and development.

Intimate body contact, breast feeding, being held, movement and affectionate play provide naturally a constant source of multi-sensory experiences that feed development. From this point of view not breastfeeding, no skin to skin contact, not being held, not moving and playing affectionately are forms of sensory deprivation, which are as damaging as a steady diet of junk food would be or no sunlight to a very new and rapidly developing human being.

In many ways our modern life style and world are deficient in both touch and movement, both critical for healthy and whole development. One example, and there are many, the World Health Organizations recommends breastfeeding for two and a half years or longer, something virtually nonexistent in industrialized societies. Yes, some women breast feed but very few for two years or longer.

What most fail to realize is that pleasure shared through intimate safe somatic stimulation is as or more important than vitamins and minerals, especially when considering early brain development.

Of course good nutrition is essential but so are intimate body contact, sight, smell, taste, touch, movement and affectionate play. These are the sensory nutrients that develop the regulatory capacities of the limbic (emotional-social-sexual) brain. An absence of these sensory-nutrients early in life retard the whole and integrated development of what has come to be called ‘emotional intelligence’ lifelong.

Caesarian section, separation at birth, the near absence of breast feeding especially after the first twelve months are all forms of sensory and social deprivation compared with our natural evolutionary history. 

Many children have more eye contact with television characters than their own parents. Insurance risks eliminated swings from preschools and so called play-grounds. Recesses are shrinking. So too are art classes and woodshop. Interaction with a 3D natural world has been replaced by 2D screens. Considering sensory development which is richer, two dimensions or three?

The entire process of growing a new human being implies a reciprocal dynamic with the environment. At each age and stage of development there is an assumed expectation that the environment will provide the precise catalysis necessary to develop the current stage and trigger yet another giant step forward in complexity.

To arrive at full functionality however, each capacity, with its implied structure, must be nurtured. Development is experience dependent and this dependency refers to the environment. Failing to meet one or more needs at any age or stage might be compared to a seed being planted in sand. A plant left in the dark will produce a leaf that is underdeveloped small, weak compared to a fully nurtured plant. The same is true of child’s developing brain and body.

Soil, sun, wind and rain are the plant’s environment. Children are planted in adults and the adult culture. When a plant wilts we water the soil and by doing so provide the best environment for that plant to grown. When a child’s development stumbles we might follow the same prescription, nurture the soil these children are planted in – focus our attention and resources on parents and the people who care for children. Childhood abuse and neglect are caused by poor soil conditions not the seedling.

I prefer the term sensory deprivation to neglect or abuse. Abuse and neglect produce images of a wounded psyche, transient feelings that are easily dismissed. Sensory deprivation is more concrete – starvation, malnutrition, torture. Are parents and the adult culture meeting nature’s long term expectations at each age and stage of a child’s development or not? That is the basic question. To answer this question we must turn to the senses and this takes us back to the research of James W. Prescott, PhD.

Dating back to the 1960’s Jim, more than anyone I know, has studied how sensory deprivation impacts the developing brain very early in life.

If we have pleasurable sensory stimulation then that’s the brain engrams, the templates that will be stored and they will be images of pleasure. If they are painful they are going to be images of pain. And pain evokes violent responses. But there is something else that invokes violent responses, and that is the absence of pleasure, and that is really different than the sensory event of pain, and most people don’t yet appreciate that distinction. And in fact, more damage occurs with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma, which, in fact, can be handled quite well in individuals who have been brought up with a great deal of physical- affectional bonding and pleasure, which carries with it emotional trust and security and so forth. 

So we really have to look at the trauma of sensory deprivation of physical pleasure and that translates into the separation experiences, the isolation experiences of the infant from the mother, that’s the beginning.

Interview with James W. Prescott, PhD

More damage occurs with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma. This one sentence holds the key to early childhood social-emotional-sexual development and everything that is built on this early foundation. 

The developing brain must experience pleasure and happiness if the integration of sensations involved in learning and social adaptation is to take place. A child denied pleasure and happiness develops a brain that is neuro-dissociative, one that fragments rather than integrates experience.

This integrative nature of pleasure and the dissociative effect of pain were demonstrated years ago when newborn monkeys were separated from their mothers and raised in isolation. The pain and pleasure systems of these mother deprived monkeys were impaired causing maturing juveniles and adults to compensate for their early sensory loss with super-sensory stimulation, i.e., chronic touch, stereotypical rocking, hyperactivity, attention deficits, touch aversion (hyper-reactivity) and self-mutilation (impaired pain perception), all behaviors with strong parallels in many of today’s children and adults.

Which is richer in terms of sensory experience: Being held close to mother’s breast or sucking artificial formula from a plastic bottle? Being strapped in a plastic stroller or carried on dad’s shoulders? Digging a hole to China or watching the Disney Channel? Legos or building a clubhouse for scrap wood? Catching frogs in the ditch or The World of War Craft? Neighborhood pick-up games or adult organized Little League? Day by day, sensation by sensation the full spectrum experiences offered by a natural three-dimensional world have been replaced by sensory deprived counterfeits.

Nate Jones, a formula one racing specialist, began to notice that boys coming to work in his shop during the early 1980s were physically and imaginatively awkward compared to every generation that came before. He could not figure out why and then it dawned on him, catalytic converters hit the car industry the same year Nintendo hit teenage boys.

Nate’s hypothesis was supported by Frank Wilson’s, a Stanford Neurologist new book, ‘The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.’ More brain power is devoted to the thumb and hand than the than the entire body beneath the neck. And how is this brain power developed? By playing with three dimensional objects throughout childhood.

Frank explains that every physical movement creates an inner image of the body’s position in three-dimensional space, a form of kinesthetic imagination or embodied cognation we call proprioception. Upon this embodied imaginative foundation we later add symbolic and metaphoric forms of imagination. Now imagine, if you can, a child with a rich three-dimensional sensory foundation and a child that skipped or was deprived of this three-dimensional foundation and leaped ahead to two-dimensional symbolic abstractions. Which of these two children would you expect to expand their capacity for critical and creative thinking and problem solving? Easy – the child who experienced and developed their brain relating to the natural three-dimensional world.

The important link between sensory stimulation, which nearly always involves the hand, brain development and creative thinking, was further supported when the head of Pasadena’s prestigious Jet Population Laboratory read an essay written by Nate. He too had seen the same physical and imaginative awkwardness, not in young car mechanics but in the pick of our nation’s top universities. The social, emotional and imaginative capacities of our brightest graduates did not match that of earlier generations. These young men had skipped playing in the mud, digging to China and catching frogs. Instead they rushed into two-dimensional flat screen abstractions, and by so doing deprived their early brains of critical three-dimensional stimulation, the essential foundation for full spectrum embodied cognitive AND symbolic imagination.

We come full circle. More damage can occur with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma. Crawl before you walk. Play in the mud, build sand castles and tree houses before you build rockets to Mars. The early sensory world lays the templates for our entire social, emotional and sexual life. And upon this foundation or lack of it, our thoughts, beliefs, our politics and values rest.

Suddenly cars became too complex to work on at home so kids stopped working in three-dimensions and invested their developmental time to two-dimensional screens. Which is more complex – two dimensions or three?


Photo: Corbis Images

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