This field began to emerge in the early 1900’s when Sigmund Freud’s student, Otto Rank, began to develop the theory that birth trauma was a factor in determining one’s behaviors later in life. His theory was not embraced by the rest of the medical community, including Freud, and the relationship between student and mentor soured. It was not until the ‘60’s and ‘70’s through the work of psychologists John Bowlby and his student Mary Ainsworth in which the importance of secure attachments and the various styles of attachment were identified, did the scientific community begin to accept that early experiences in the womb, during birth, and the first few years of life had significant implications for the individual’s health and well-being throughout life.
The science of Epigenetics in combination with Attachment Theory is a large part of the research and understanding that makes up this particular branch of psychology. One of the ongoing arguments between psychologists since the birth of psychology has been the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. This has been ongoing in an attempt to identify whether heredity or environmental factors are largely responsible for determining the development of an individual including behaviors, intelligence, and personality.
In 2001, the first draft of the Human Genome Project was published in the journal “Nature”. The most startling finding was that the number of human genes was 30 percent fewer than previous estimates. When the project started in 1987, it was estimated that there were as many as a 100,000 genes. It was also assumed that human complexity originated from this number; the greater the number of genes, the greater the complexity. So you can only imagine the confusion when only 31,000 protein-encoded genes were discovered. No longer can the argument be made that genetics has the greatest influence on human development. As stated in the previous article “The Science of Epigenetics”, our DNA may be the blue print of life but it turns out that the environment is what informs our genetic functioning, including our thoughts and feelings in response to our experiences. How a baby develops in utero in response to mom’s stress levels, the degree of trauma experienced at birth and how securely the child is able to attach to his/her primary caregivers in the first few years of life appears to be the most important factors influencing development and future generations.
Early childhood is the most critical stage of development given that the brain, in its earliest stages of development, is still organizing. Perinatal experiences which include breastfeeding, gentle and constant touch, soothing voices, appropriate environmental stimulus and responsiveness to needs not only prevents distress but also ensures that the limbic brain which receives and processes sensations, feelings and emotions is imprinted in such a way that validates our right to exist. If, on the other hand, our early childhood experiences beginning with gestation are less nurturing and more painful; our limbic system begins to imprint this experience as representative of love. This, in turn, sets us up to recreate this experience throughout life informing dysfunctional styles of relationship patterns in an attempt to get our emotional needs met.
Research within the field of PPNP has shown that physical dis-ease expressions and behavioral issues later in life can be traced back to trauma spanning gestation, through birth and into early childhood. The baby’s nervous system will become hard-wired in creating a ‘comfort zone’ around whatever the initial environment offered in the form of stimulus. If it was primarily stressful, painful and frightening, then baby becomes imprinted in the brain and the body to expect this. Consistent with trauma research, he/she will spend the rest of his/her life recreating and attracting into their life these kinds of experiences; ones that are unloving, unkind, stressful, anxiety-provoking and, at times, abusive.
Early childhood trauma, combined with our collective conditioning has created within us an orientation in which we are constantly looking outside of ourselves in an attempt to get our needs met. I believe that when we have an over-reliance on the other to make us feel better about ourselves, we are attempting to compensate for a time in our life in which our basic needs were not met. Our early formative years are the time in which what we take in as loving and nurturing sets us up emotionally and physically for the rest of our lives. If our brains and bodies were not encoded with the fundamental messages that we had the right to exist during the first few years of life because our caregivers were unresponsive to our needs; we will be unconsciously seeking this out and needing constant reassurance within our relationships throughout our entire adult lives.
The good news is this: Now that we are aware of the impact that these early childhood experiences may have had on us we have the ability to change our current experience. No longer do we have to be victimized by what affected us long before we have any memory of even being alive. Just having the understanding that most of what we currently experience in our lives that is undesirable is largely being informed by these imprints is the first step in climbing out from underneath them. Body work such as Somatic Emotional Release Therapy and various modalities within the realm of energy medicine such as Cranial Sacral Therapy are extremely effective in assisting one’s healing process at the earliest and deepest levels of trauma imprinting. More on this subject will be explored in the upcoming article entitled "Energy Medicine".