Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 7 THe Law of Love
The Power of Touch
With the first kiss of a mother’s lips, the first gentle whisper from a father, a tentative snuggle from a sibling, love works its way into our central core. Within a newborn’s tiny brain, neural chemistry is afire, forging new neural pathways as the infant’s senses of sound and smell and touch.relay a flood of information from its new world.
The brain grows at an astonishing rate when we are young. We know, for instance, that young children can learn languages much more readily than adults. The rational brain is learning and absorbing, but so is the emotional brain. Developing infants need to bond with others, to feel security, compassion and love. The role of touch is paramount in human development. Without it, we lack the emotional nourishment we need to thrive, and perhaps, even to survive.
Our body’s largest organour skinis primed for touch. Skin is riddled with nerves, touch receptors with which we feel hot and cold, pain and pleasure, tingles and tickles. We know from studies of primates and other animals that touch is central to proper emotional, psychological and physical development. In one study with monkeys, mothers were separated from their infants by a glass partition. In one group, the mother and child could still see, smell and hear one another, but they could not touch. The conditions were the same for a second group except that the pair could touch one another through holes cut in the partition. The babies who could not touch their mothers cried and paced, whereas the babies who could touch did not show serious behavioural problems. When reunited, the babies that had been deprived of touch clung obsessively to their mothers and failed to develop the level of independence and confidence shown by the other monkeys.
A parent’s touch may not only comfort and please its offspring, but new studies show that touch actually modifies brain development. Like human parents, rat parents have different parenting styles, with some being more attentive than others. Michael Meaney of McGill University demonstrated that differences in maternal care can make physical changes in the brain and determine how rats cope with stressful situations.
Meaney found the offspring of rats that spent more time licking and grooming their pups were better able to deal with stress later in life. The higher the incidence of grooming, the lower the levels of stress hormones produced by the pups. This meant that pups raised by particularly attentive mothers were calmer during stressful times later in life, and they also showed a greater capacity for learning. Overall health improved as well, since long-term exposure to high levels of stress hormones can contribute to chronic problems such as heart disease or diabetes.
The stimulation provided by licking actually triggered a change in the DNA chemistry in certain genes in the baby rats. As the mother licked and groomed her pups, she essentially flipped a switch,” turning on genes that reduced the amount of hormones released during periods of stress. More licking resulted in more receptors in the pups brains that regulate the production of stress hormones.