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Megan Gunnar
Megan Gunnar, Director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota

By David Schimke

Developmental Psychologist Megan Gunnar talks about how environmental stress affects children’s astonishingly resilient, yet fragile brains.

As an undergraduate student, Megan Gunnar remembers being innately drawn to the link between psychology and biology. That what a person thinks can actually affect the body (and vice versa), whether in moments of calm or in the face of an existential threat. An independently minded woman coming of age during the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, she was also fascinated by genetic differences between the sexes, which led to her first serious research project at Stanford University, where she examined the developmental effects of sex hormones.

In short order, this work put her in close proximity to babies, and researchers such as Seymour Levine, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the school, who were looking at the effects of neonatal experiences on adult behavior, stress levels, and the immune system. “That was the moment of truth,” says Gunnar, who went on to get her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at Stanford. “Oh, and the second moment of truth is when I realized that assays [investigative, analytic procedures] were coming along that would make it possible to measure stress hormones in saliva. And I knew I would be able to study the experiences that we have when we were young and how those regulate our stress systems.”

After spending a decade learning about infants’ basic brain systems and architecture, Gunnar felt ready to look more closely at how children respond physiologically and socially to chronic mistreatment. She worked with kids living in orphanages, as well as those adopted from orphanages, and unearthed evidence establishing that a child’s earliest experiences have a powerful effect on shaping a child’s neurological infrastructure, their behavior, and their learning potential.

In the years since, Gunnar has honed her expertise and made it her mission to share what she’s learning with both peers and the general public. She is currently the co-Director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, and in that role, has become involved in many activities to translate research on early development for use by policy makers, practitioners and families. She is a founding member of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child that is part of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. The goal of this group is to translate what we know about the science of child development into communications that make sense to legislators, policy makers, and people who are in a position to work with and advocate for children. She was also a member of the Institute of Medicine study that produced Neurons to Neighborhoods, a review of what we know about early brain and behavioral development.

What is the biggest myth about child development?
That it’s all genetics. That basically there is a program that just plays out. Our brains are adapted to the context in which we develop. It’s easiest to see this in language. If you’re a Japanese child, pretty soon you can’t hear the difference between ra [as in raw] and la [as in law]. But English- speaking children continue to hear the difference. It’s just a way for the brain to process information efficiently, based on outside circumstance. Now, this sort of plasticity is always a double-edged sword, because it also means that under adverse or harsh conditions you adapt in ways that may limit how you operate in different environments. So, for instance, if you learn to adapt in a very harsh, neglecting environment, one of the things you develop is the capacity to act first, think later.

Of course, while saying that it’s all about genetics is a very big mistake; the brain isn’t completely plastic, either. Genes do play a role. So you can’t take anyone and turn [him or her] into anything. There are genetic constraints.

And we still have a lot to learn about this balance—nature versus nurture?
Right. And nature doesn’t like to get put in the box, even though human beings really like to have boxes. We like to say, “This is it!” And when you say, “On the one hand, on the other hand,” like every scientist does, you start to lose people. “Just tell me what it is, don’t tell me it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” So one of the challenges we face is trying to come up with metaphors and examples that allow people to think about these issues more complexly.

How does a baby’s brain change in the first few months and years?
The first few months are critically important for setting up the sensory systems and the communication between sensory systems—like vision, sense, and taste—and motor systems. In the second-half of the first year, we have the social revolution, when there’s just loads going on in terms of orientation and processing and becoming highly social. We also begin to engage in this thing called social referencing—treating others as if they have a mind separate from our own. If you want your mom to look at something you get to the point where you point and coo, and you expect that she will look and that you will share an experience. We then begin to turn into real social beings. We begin to differentiate ourselves from others. It’s just the beginning, and that will continue through our second year, which is a very important year for social processing: You begin to be capable of thinking more abstractly. So you can begin to use a pencil as a spoon to feed your doll, pretending. Pretend begins to come in, that’s huge, and the prefrontal cortex is really developing like crazy so that you can begin to have that self-reflection and so on. And with that language production really takes a big zoom. You’ve begun to learn words but now you’re beginning to put words together and so on.

How might these early stages of development be adversely affected by environmental factors typically associated with poverty?
Throughout this whole time you have been sprouting synapses and pruning them in different regions of the brain, as your brain is wiring-up to be able to do all the things that you are going to be capable of doing. Poverty is a risk factor during this process.

Consider what all kids need to develop well: They need to have somebody who is available to be sensitive and responsive to their needs. They can handle several people, so it doesn’t have to be the same person all the time. But they need to have their people, they need to know their people, and their people need to be able to be responsive to them. So how does poverty threaten that? Well, if your mom’s working two jobs and your dad’s working two jobs and there still isn’t enough to get ends meeting, and your parents are worried and they’re fighting, and they’re arguing about money, and your mom is depressed because we know maternal depression goes up in poverty, they’re just not as available to you. That’s a huge issue. And it’s not because economically disadvantaged parents aren’t sensitive or responsive, it’s just harder to establish frequent, secure relationships as families fall down the socioeconomic latter.

It’s situational, not intentional.
It’s situational. We can do this to animals. We can put them in situations where they just don’t do the right thing because they’re just trying to keep everybody’s head above water. So that’s huge. You need to have enough one-on- one time with adults so that they can talk with you, so that you can learn language. And we know that those opportunities decrease as you go down the socioeconomic ladder. The amount of words that children hear in conversation simply goes down. And words are concepts, and concepts open the world so that you can learn more stuff. Skills beget skills. All of these things are building blocks. So if you’re not learning as many words early on, you are not getting as many concepts. Your brain isn’t experiencing as much digestible information to help it build its brain architecture. There are a lot of stimuli in the homes of impoverished kids, but it’s often incoherent. It’s not organized. It’s more chaotic than predictable. In all of these ways poverty is a risk to the development of brain architecture.

What is an acceptable level of stress for a child, and what kind of stress can cause long-lasting damage?
It’s important to find a way to distinguish different levels of stress anecdotally, because when you give a talk, all of a sudden everybody’s saying, “Yeah? I experienced a lot of stress as a kid and it was good for me.” And yes, we all experience challenges along the way, so wrapping a kid in bubble wrap is not the way to develop a competent human being. When a child is told they can’t have a cookie because it’s dinnertime, and they throw a hissy fit, and Mom puts them in a timeout, that’s stressful. But it’s good stuff. Learning to a bike and falling down or going to the doctor and getting a shot, these things are stressful. But if you have people supporting you, you can cope and overcome. And you learn you’re a competent kid and that the world is actually pretty safe.

Toxic stress is when things happen that really activate your biology and it goes on for a long time because there’s nobody there, or the people who are there are actually the ones who are creating the threat. I mean, if you have to approach the same people for support who are scaring you, boy, that defines toxic.

So a stable support system is key?
Two things are key for stress regulation. Feeling that you know what’s going to happen, and that you can control what’s going to happen. But little kids know they can’t control a lot. So the third piece to this is that you have people who are able to respond to your needs. And in the beginning, that those people are also perceived as powerful. They can control stuff. Throughout our lives relationships matter because we are soothed by loving relationships, so they’re critical to stress. But in little kids it’s combination of both that feeling of being soothed and being protected by big powerful people.

Now one of the things that happens in dis-regulated, disrupted homes is that the adults aren’t being adult and the kids end up having to prematurely take over and play the role of adult. That’s really harmful.

If you have long-term exposure to toxic stress, what is one of more radical ways that it can affect brain development?
It could actually kill brain cells, which is why nature doesn’t want that to happen.

If a child is experiencing toxic stress at home, can it be mitigated by positive interactions, role models, and support systems outside the home?
Yes. Now, it can’t completely reverse what’s happening at home. But human beings are incredibly resilient organisms. There are also individual differences, too. I mean, some kids are real orchids and boy, they suffer—suffer a lot. Some kids are more like dandelions and they’re going to turn towards the sun and manage to survive, given half a chance. A little bit of rain, they’ll grab onto it.

What do you hope people who do volunteer work with at-risk kids take away from your talk on early childhood brain development?
So many of these kids can be incredibly annoying and they’re manipulative and they can piss you off. That’s because they’re often stuck in survival mode. And so the idea here is that the more you understand about why they do what they do, the more you can stay firmly in control of the situation. In other words, you don’t let them walk all over you, but you don’t do it with anger.

So the most important thing in working with these kids is to prevent them from flipping into a defensive mode where they’re not going to get anything out of it. You need to be able to set clear rules, guidelines, and hold to them as you work with them without experiencing anger when they manipulate you and drive you to the edge.

David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and media strategist

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