Hit with the truth

A long term study determines that ‘smacking’/hitting children isn’t such a good idea for their long term well-being and functioning. Wow – really? I’m shocked. So let’s put the research aside for a second, because there will be plenty of people not willing to accept the evidence.

Regardless of your beliefs, whatever values have been instilled in you from whatever sources perhaps an approach to this delicate topic of parental ‘rights’ and who gets to police that always evokes a challenge to the moral order.

But how about trying to look at this purely from a neurobiological perspective, particularly the fundamentals of the limbic system, namely the amygdala and the associated structures that mediate and process environmental info and emotional responses then how this is mediated by the frontal cortex or the ‘reasoning’ part of the brain. Abuse and trauma in early life (infancy-childhood) directly effects the amygdala producing structural and functional changes. Emotional responses and anxiety are heightened in response to stressful situations or stimuli. This early life trauma has been shown in studies to stay relatively permanent. The amygdala does not work alone, it is part of a network and this is also effected, including the relationship to the frontal cortex.

The brain has some level of neuroplasticity which is great and why children and young people need access to good support and resources to mediate the affective development and not be exposed to more abuse. There are some important places other than homes where children and young people can be exposed to stress and abuse, sometimes in the name of love and support. Schools in particular can be such sites.

While corporal punishment has been outlawed in New Zealand since 1990 the use of shame, humiliation and other threatening tactics are still employed and punishment is still seen as the preferred option. In light of this research I hope that approaches come under the microscope and we can look beyond blaming parents and take a collective responsibility for abuse – all forms including institutional. The growing movement of restorative approaches gives me some hope, neuroscientists such as Daniel Reisel back this process for healing and developing empathy.

So back to the truth – all forms of abuse have an effect, regardless of the intent. The courage our society faces is to start putting the effects ahead of peoples intentions and support the taking up of responsibility for harm.


I’ve been at a conference over the last couple of days and listened to a key note (hmmm key note – not to be confused with any election reference…more like ‘off-key’ note in that case) from Dr Michael Merzenich a very learned man with a passion for this stuff that was almost contagious. I tend to inoculate myself with a natural dose of non-attachment to any definitive theory of anything.

Brain plasticity is a not a new idea, but there have been some assumptions about when that plasticity ends and hardened or engrained neural pathways become set. From this point on we get the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. No-one of course ever bothers to wonder if the dog is actually just giving the human equivalent of the middle finger rather than perform on command. It seems some theories might need a bit of plasticity as new research reveals the brain is indeed plastic at all ages and stages of life. Of course this has huge implications for healing trauma, learning, quality of life, memory and recall.
We saw lots of high quality data to support this, many graphs, diagrams, stats, none of which I can remember – but probably could if signed up for the programme Dr Merzenich has designed (and has shares in he so openly declared) and I trained myself to. And here is the dilemma. Whilst I appreciate the revelation I’m hoping it doesn’t start a wave of relentless pursing of ‘upping learning capacity’ or creating a new wave of extra training to add to an already growing obsession with training in general.

Plasticity however is a great concept in general. If we can apply the idea of plasticity to rigid beliefs and values and generate new pathways of social connection, understanding and respect that isn’t fixed in fear and ignorance, that will be far more valuable than recalling 200 random objects at will. My guess is the events that lead to the initial chaos and damage requiring repair would probably not be so prevalent. I’d rather have a share in that.

Really – it’s a no brainer.