NURTURE BEATS NATURE; Infants' Experiences Give Clues to Growth, Attachments

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The debate goes on over whether a child develops better under a parent's singular care and when day care is a worthy substitute. As it turns out, mother knows best - sometimes. So does father, but maybe in a different way. Finally, day care is good, depending on its quality.

A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded somewhat ambiguously in the late 1990s that day care "in and of itself was found neither to adversely affect nor to promote the security of infants' attachment to their mothers," according to a 2002 article in the Psychologist magazine by developmental psychologist Howard Steele of New York's New School for Social Research.

Few researchers, however, dispute the notion that an infant's social and emotional core is greatly influenced by the environment in which he is raised. It's nurture over nature nearly every time, say scientists engaged in the study of human development.

With advances in technology using such tools as MRIs, scientists are beginning to see how the physical structure of a person's brain is affected by the kind of nurturing a child receives in the first few months of life. They are especially interested in the right hemisphere, the part of the brain that analyzes nonverbal information, communicates emotion and is critically important in the months before a child begins to speak - possibly, some believe, even while in the womb. The right brain, in this view, evolves before the left brain, which is associated with verbal and sequential reasoning.

"Attachment experiences shape the early organization of the right brain, the neurobiological core of the human unconscious," writes University of California at Los Angeles psychoanalyst Allan Schore in a recent issue of the Clinical Social Work Journal. This view, known as the attachment theory, is an outgrowth of pioneering studies by British psychiatrist John Bowlby many decades ago. Interdisciplinary work done since then - bringing together the realms of neurology, psychology, biology and genetics - "has pushed the knowledge forward," Mr. Schore says in an interview.

The tricky part is having the caregiver not only "sensitively read baby's emotional language" but also understand "her own reactions to him," Mr. Schore explains. These are key points that put the focus less on the child's awareness of the world - his cognitive state - than on his earliest relationships in it. Good so-called attachment mechanisms, he adds, "are tied directly into certain other attributes, such as capacity for empathy [and] ability to resonate with another human being. These lead to the problem of morality and ability to regulate stress for oneself and others - essentially all the most human of qualities."

"Hard evidence," he adds, shows that "pre- and postnatal factors are also essential to a predisposition to physical disorders - diabetes, heart diseases and the like. …