Womb, Birth, Infancy, Childhood

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January 29, 2007

Like characters in a gloomy sci-fi novel, many found work in the secret police, where their lack of loyalty and ability to make "friends" were saleable traits.

   ~ David Tenenbaum, 'Drastic Deprivation', on adults who had been raised in Romanian orphanages with massive deprivation of contact and affection


To have good manners means to think of others, no'to feel for others. One must be group-conscious, have the gift of putting oneself in the other man's shoes. Manners prohibit the wounding of anyone. To be mannerly is to have genuine good taste. Manners cannot be taught, for they belong to the unconscious.

Etiquette, on the other hand, can be taught, for it belongs to the conscious. It is the veneer of manners. . . .

Bad manners always spring from a disordered psyche. Slander and scandal and gossip and backbiting are all subjective faults; they show hatred of self. They prove that the scandal-monger is unhappy. If we can take children into a world where they will be happy, we shall automatically rid them of all desire to hate. In other words, these children will have good manners in the deepest sense; that is, they will show forth loving-kindness.

   ~ A.S. Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960), page 192


What kind of world do we want?

More than ever, this is an important question. Our answers, and how we go about trying to implement them, will determine whether our grandchildren live in freedom or in tyranny, and perhaps whether they live at all. Never before has mankind held so much technological power, and this power is growing exponentially. How it is used will make all the difference'and healthy human beings make better, healthier choices than do neurotics or sociopaths.

That last sentence is another way of saying that the character of the human world is created by our treatment of the young. Early experience is in fact crucial to what we become: happy or miserable; healthy or sick; loving or hateful; trusting or cynical; compassionate or cruel. Early events set the tone for later character, philosophy, and behavior. We see and feel the world through the lens of early experience, usually without noticing that the lens is there.

The wider importance of early experience should be obvious. A world of loving, compassionate adults would not be a world of war, or crime, or secret mass graves filled on the order of madmen. It would not be a world where armies of emotionally-damaged soldiers would be available to madmen, or where centralized power over others generally would be seen as acceptable. Nor would such a world need the drugs, legal and otherwise, now used by the trainload to calm the nerves and cover the pain of damaged children who have grown into uneasy adulthood.

A healthy world would not be a place where technology, or anything else, would be used maliciously or recklessly.

The only question that really matters today is this one: Can we move things in the right direction in time?

That is not hyperbole. Many scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Bill Joy, and Martin Reese, are worried that we will not make it through the present century. Their concerns appear well founded.


Some find it hard to believe that early experience, and especially preverbal experience, can have any effect on later life at all. How can events during infancy, during birth, or even in the womb make any difference in our experience or actions as adults?

Such attitudes are telling because it is actually common knowledge that even experience in utero has a huge effect on later life; Thalidomide is among the most dramatic examples but smoking, drinking, or other drug use by a pregnant mother are also widely known to have strong and often lasting effects on the baby in terms of brain structure, behavior, and inner experience. Brain development can be interrupted in various ways not only in the womb but by a traumatic birth or in infancy, leading to a host of ill effects. For example, the book Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence ". . . presents data to document what we have long observed: that experiences in infancy which result in the child's inability to regulate strong emotions are too often the overlooked source of violence in children and adults. Story after story points to the importance of intrauterine conditions and early experiences which can lead to future violent behavior." (p. xiii)

If you have trouble believing in the power of preverbal experience, consider the occasional intensity of lower-level, nonverbal experience in your own adult life: sex, pain, hunger or thirst are all essentially lower-level, non-verbal experiences despite our ability to add words to them. We do remember these non-verbal experiences and our behavior can clearly be modified by them; you don't put your hand back on a hot stove after doing it the first time. For that matter, dogs, fish, and other animals (even tiny flatworms) learn from experience and modify their behavior accordingly.

The power of even prenatal experience is enormous. One example, from "Prenatal Stress May Cause Disorder" by Rogers Worthington, Chicago Tribune (as reprinted in the San Diego Union-Tribune), February 2, 1994 :

MADISON , Wis. --The contrast is striking. Four of the eight baby monkeys in Cage 3 bound about spiritedly. The other four huddle motionless, their countenances a furry, saucer-eyed tableau of fear and anxiety.

They are products of a first-of-its-kind project examining the effects of prenatal stress on the brain development of young rhesus monkeys, animals that are said to share 95 percent of human genes.

The story goes on to say that it took remarkably little stress'in one set of subjects, exposing the pregnant monkeys to "(t)hree noise bursts . . . randomly sounded over a 10-minute period" was enough'to cause severe effects in the offspring of the stressed mothers. The research project, developed over five years at the University of Wisconsin's Harlow Primate Laboratory, showed that the offspring of stressed mothers were also slower to learn, more shy, clumsier, had less effective immune systems, and weighed less than the offspring of animals that were not stressed.*

* Harlow and his research lab are most famous for the 'wire mother/cloth mother' experiments with infant monkeys, which showed, among other things, that social deprivation during infancy and childhood has severe and lasting effects on monkeys – something also true of humans, as the article at link above shows (link is also used for quote at top of this column).

Another example, this time about experience during birth, from "Born addicts", New Scientist magazine, 21 October 2000 :

The more painkillers a woman gets during labour, the more likely her child is to abuse drugs later in life.

Karin Nyberg of the University of Gothenburg and her colleagues looked at medication given to the mothers of 69 adult drug abusers and 33 of their siblings who did not abuse drugs. They found that 23 per cent of the drug abusers were exposed to multiple doses of opiates or barbiturates in the hours before birth, compared with only 3 per cent of their siblings without drug problems (Epidemiology, vol 11, p 715). If the mothers received three or more doses, their child was nearly five times as likely to abuse drugs.(1)

One more example, primarily about the effects of experience in childhood: a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatrists Explore Legacy of Traumatic Stress in Early Life, August 1, 2001 – found that "More than 50 studies show that repeated physical or sexual abuse has numerous sequelae in adulthood, including sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and suicidality." Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in such children is common and often follows them into adulthood. "Early experiences set the level of responsiveness of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and autonomic nervous system, Yehuda noted, allowing these systems to overreact or underreact to subsequent stress. Childhood trauma leaves a person extremely vulnerable to the effects of stress, she said, and specifically to the development of PTSD."


Because most studies are couched in negative terms, it is easy to forget that the studies are telling us the good as well as the bad. Negative early experience has negative effects on later life, but this also means that preventing negative early experience has positive effects (in both cases, relative to the statistical norm). If the combination of a birth complication and rejection by the mother makes a male infant three times more likely to exhibit violent behavior later in life (as one 30-year study[2] found), then the study means that male children will have a lower statistical risk of showing later violent behavior if the infants have good births and loving mothers. Society-wide, reducing such risk factors would have major benefits: the study's authors estimate as much as 18 percent of all violent crime is related to these two specific factors, for example.


For the world to become more free and compassionate, we need increasing numbers of children to grow up in healthy environments. Children need freedom just as adults do; adults who spent their entire childhood being coerced by teachers and parents will not likely understand freedom or support it for others. Adults who grew up getting little compassion from cold or angry parents, or who grew up in war zones or with violence from other sources, may be less able to feel and to express compassion for others. And how can the duality of love and freedom not be damaged in a society where hatred, prejudice, or blind obedience to Authority is systematically instilled in the young?

These problems cannot be successfully addressed via coercive government because coercion itself is a major part of the problem. Even well-meant and initially well-run government approaches eventually become disasters; they hurt rather than help. Ultimately, the foundations for all coercive government can only be cruelty and violence: submit or die. Need it be said that a free and compassionate world will not come about via such methods?

Love and freedom begin with family, with small groups, and with voluntary association and action. 'Live and let live' and 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' are the foundations of any free and healthy society. This approach to life is diametrically opposed to the 'Do as we say, or else' attitude central to coercive government.


If Reese, Hawking, and others are right, we may have little time left to begin increasing the levels of love and freedom in this world. Moving things in the right direction starts with compassionate and non-coercive treatment of the young.

Next week: Free Societies in the Real World.


There is an ocean of material about early experience and its results. Below, a very short list of sources from a variety of perspectives:

Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer

Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence by Robin Karr-Morse, Meredith S. Wiley, and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton

The Biology of Love by Dr. Arthur Janov

Motherless Daughters: the Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman

Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women by Jonetta Rose Barras

Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu

A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D.

Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by A.S. Neill

Report by H. M. Inspectors on the Summerhill School, 1949 (An excellent look at what the school was like 28 years after its founding. Compare this to what you know about today's schools. Link is to an HTML file of the report).

Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg (link is to a page at the school site with excerpts)

A collection of news items and other material on this topic is available at http://www.paradise-paradigm.net/science.htm

Finally, last week's column features material from the 17,000+ participant ACE Study as described in Dr. Vincent J. Felitti's astonishing The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead [PDF].


1. The study discussed was published as 'Perinatal Medication as a Potential Risk Factor for Adult Drug Abuse in a North American Cohort' in Epidemiology, 11(6):715-716, November 2000, Nyberg, Karin; Buka, Stephen L.; Lipsitt, Lewis P.

2. Raine A, Brennan P, Mednick SA: Birth complications combined with early maternal rejection at age 1 year predispose to violent crime at age 18 years. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1994; 51:984-988.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.