Is misused neuroscience defining early years and child protection policy?

Writing in the Guardian, Zoe Williams says that the idea that a child’s brain is irrevocably shaped in the first three years increasingly drives government policy on early years and child protection intervention but may actually be flawed. This is an extract…

Neuroscience is huge in early years policy. This week, in what’s been characterised as the largest shake-up of family law in a generation, the 26-week time limit for adoption proceedings has come into force, much of it justified by the now-or-never urgency of this set of beliefs, that the first three years (or sometimes first 18 months) hardwire a baby’s brain, either give it or deny it the capacity for a full life.

This is the engine of what is known as the First Three Years movement, which has transfixed politicians from across the spectrum….

Here’s the thing: what if it’s over-baked? What if the claims made for neuroscience are so extreme that most neuroscientists would disown them? What if the constant references to “brain scans of neglected children” actually just meant one brain scan, from one highly contested study? What if synaptic development were a bit more complicated than “the more synapses the better”, and what if MRI scans tell us much less than we think? Jan Macvarish, author of Biologising Parenting: Neuroscience Discourse, says: “There’s a wow factor to the images that the substance of the research doesn’t merit. We’re not actually seeing inside brains. We’re certainly not seeing emotions written on to the brain that we can then draw conclusions from into how parents should love their children.”

Val Gillies, a researcher in social policy at South Bank University, takes the scans head-on. “That illustration of the walnut brain is from a paper by Bruce Perry. There are no details given of the case histories of those kids. We don’t know what ‘normal’ was. We don’t know what ‘extreme neglect’ was. We don’t even have a scale on that image. It’s had the most powerful impact, but I’ve never seen another image like that…

John Bruer is an American academic (his PhD is in philosophy, in which he holds a number of chairs) who published The Myth of the First Three Years in 1999, in response to the identical movement that hit the US a decade before us, and which arguably (very arguably; more of this later) has been imported brick by brick…

Bruer says his interest is apolitical, and is in how much we can actually tell from the evidence we’re given. “The first three years of life is a period of rapid synaptic development. But what this implies for brain function and behaviour is only asserted by early-years advocates: cue the erroneous conclusion that human brain development is effectively solidified by the end of the first three years.” It is true, he points out later, that the brain is 80% of its full size by the end your third year; “what this tells us about brain function is precisely nothing”…

But if it’s not convincing, how has it been possible to swing policy so firmly? Partly because it builds on the assertions of attachment theory..

Attachment is fascinating as an idea; when it hardens into science, which is inchoate but treated as fact, its consequences can be devastating. White concludes: “There is an argument for removing children, a precautionary principle argument. You can say, ‘Right, let’s remove all children who are in suboptimal parenting situations.’ You can do it. Regimes have done that, over the years. But we’re not having those debates. What we’re having is this misuse of the neuroscientific evidence, to suggest that it’s very dangerous for children to be left in certain situations. I’m not talking about leaving them in situations where they’re at risk of injury or sexual abuse, more: ‘Your mum’s in a bit of a mess, she’s drinking a bit and not interacting with you optimally and she’s also poor, which is why she’s not been able to keep the state out of it.’ It’s only when the children who’ve been removed grow up, and ask, ‘But did anybody try to help my mum?’ That’s what you would ask, isn’t it?”…

More (including many additional references ) at: Is misused neuroscience defining early years and child protection policy?

Do you share Zoe Williams concerns that too much policy is currently being guided by interpretations of neuroscience that may be far from proven? Please give us your thoughts and feedback in the comments or via Twitter…

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