“My father broke my brain.” That is a direct quote from me to my therapist. Actually, both of my parents had a hand in breaking my brain. That is how I feel. Broken is how I have always felt. If you shake me, you would hear all of the brokenness rattles around inside me. That is what childhood abuse does to your developing brain.
Turns out, based on research, that my parents actually did break my brain. When I started digging into the research, I was shocked at how much there is on childhood abuse and the lifelong effects of that abuse.
On the one hand, I suppose I am thankful that there is a lot of research on the topic of childhood abuse, brain development in abused children, and resilience. On the other hand, it sickens me that that child abuse is so prevalent that there is so much research on the topic.
In this post, I am going to write about how an abused child’s brain develops differently. And how then developing resilience seems to bypass those initial adaptive modifications. It is that developed resilience that is the foundation for a bright life that began dismally.
This post is a continuation of Neuroplasticity: Evidence of Resilient Brains. I am going to write about how an abused child’s brain develops differently. And how then developing resilience seems to bypass those initial adaptive modifications. It is that developed resilience that is the foundation for a bright life that began dismally.
The debate of nature versus nurture is a common one and has been going on for a long time. Well, when it comes to the development of our brains, it turns out both sides are right. Our brains are initially structured based on genetics (nature). It is the information from the environment (nurture) that guides how the brain develops the neural pathways.2
There are two large-scale and rapid development phases that our brains go through. These periods are called sensitive periods. It is during these sensitive periods that children’s brains are vulnerable to long term effects of abuse.
The first sensitive period is in childhood when there is rapid synaptic growth. This rapid synaptic growth creates more synapses than the brain may actually need to carry the messages from neuron to neuron. But the brain doesn’t know that it isn’t going to need all of those synapses.2 Not yet, anyway. Apparently, the brain needs to learn about lean manufacturing.
Now, what does that brain do with all of those synapses that it created in that rapid growth phase? Right about puberty, the brain goes through a process called pruning. The brain goes through a process of fine-tuning itself and becomes more efficient. The brain uses the experiences up until that point to guide the pruning process. 1 &2
The brain wires itself up for adulthood based on experience in childhood; when that experience includes trauma or neglect, the brain adapts, fine-tuning itself to survive amidst adversity.1
The brain’s sensory systems, which serve as initial filters to the outside world, are modified in a selective way that seems to desensitize them, presumably as a protective measure to attenuate the traumatic impact of the environment.1
Child Abuse & Brain Development
Abused children’s brains go through the same sensitive periods as non-abused children. The difference is their environment. Yup, that’s right, nature. Abused children’s brains modify themselves to protect their development (and therefore, the children’s) as best as it can. Children’s primary source for environmental input is their caregivers, usually, their parents, whether biological or otherwise.
Their caregivers are supposed to provide a safe environment for the child to develop. And when that does not happen, it alters the brain. When it comes to abused children one of the more consistent discoveries has been increased reactivity in the amygdala (fight or flight processing hub).1
The other is the muted reaction of the reward system.1 The reward system is a group of structures in the brain that are activated when presented with an object, event, or activity that motivates us or provides us pleasure.3 When exposed to a rewarding stimulus, the brain responds by increasing release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.4
Since the brain uses environmental cues to develop neural pathways, it makes sense that depending on the type of abuse the child experiences, the brain adapts differently. What I find fascinating about this is not only that our brains are trying to protect us from the abuse, but the adaptions can be rather specific to the abuse.
Types of Abuse & the Brain
If a child experiences verbal abuse, one of the areas of the brain that shows a reduced volume of gray matter (density of cells) in their left auditory cortex.1 That is the part of the brain that processes sound recognition. Decreased density affects the ability to learn to differentiate and identify sounds.5
As compared to the child’s brain that experiences emotional abuse have thinner areas of the brain that contribute to emotion, cognition, memory recollection, information integration.6&7
How about the child who experiences domestic violence? Their brain compensates by affecting gray matter changes in the areas of the brain that receives, integrate, and process visual information. It also affects the integrity of systems that determine memory and emotional response to visual information.1
The child who experiences sexual abuse, their brain modifies the visual cortex, specifically in the areas that are involved with facial recognition. The ability to recognize faces is critical in learning socially relevant information like levels of familiarity, attractiveness, and emotional status. Loss of the ability to recognize faces is usually associated with impaired neurobiological mechanisms related to visual face perception and memory problems.8
These are some of the many reasons that I have memory issues.
Can’t Keep A Brain Down
I experienced every one of those types of abuse. My brain most likely has all, if not more, of those adaptations that I outlined in the previous section. Do you know why I think that? Every single abused child has the same modifications in their brains. Every. Single. One. There are nearly 700,000 children abused in the United States every year.9
Think about that for a moment.
The good (?) thing is that our brains do adapt beyond the initial modifications protecting us from abuse. That is resiliency. It’s that next level adaptation. Being resilient is building roadways around those modified areas of the brain. It actually makes sense to me. If I think about the regions of the brain not developing in the way it would under non-abusive circumstances, then something occurs, something pushing for that adaptation around the other parts.
What is that thing that pushes for the resilient adaptation? I don’t know. We may never know what really triggers that. I can guess based on information on how to build resilience. I think for me, it was my ability to inwardly focus to the point that I thought so much about how I wanted to be in the world.
I am an introvert, and I believe that saved me. By finding comfort in solitude, and not being afraid to dig deep, I was able to create those resilient patterns.
As a childhood abuse survivor, I often wonder how I (and my brain) would be different if I weren’t abused. Then I researched neuroplasticity and resilience, and I think maybe I am not broken after all. Or perhaps I was, and my brain did what it is so good at adapting. Its kind of like my brain was making lemonade from lemons.
- Brenda Patoine. “The Abused Brain Neural Adaptation, Resilience, and Compensation in Childhood Maltreatment.” Dana Foundation. October 9, 2018. https://www.dana.org/article/the-abused-brain/. Accessed July 31, 2020.
- Johanna Bick & Charles A Nelson. “Early Adverse Experiences in the Developing Brain.” September 3, 2015. https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2015252. Accessed August 6, 2020.
- Deborah Halber. “Motivation: Why You Do The Things You Do.” Brain Facts. August 29, 2018. https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/learning-and-memory/2018/motivation-why-you-do-the-things-you-do-082818. Accessed August 5, 2020.
- Matthew Dahiltz. “Know Your Brain Reward System.” Neuroscientifically Challenged. January 16, 2015. https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/know-your-brain-reward-system. Accessed August 6, 2020.
- Fiona McPherson, PhD. “Gray Matter.” Mempowered! https://www.memory-key.com/memory/gray-matter#:~:text=Brain%20tissue%20is%20made%20up,with%20various%20abilities%20and%20skills. Accessed August 6, 2020
- Matthew Dahlitz. “Know Your Brain: Cingulate Cortex.” Neuroscientifically Challenged. September 1, 2015. https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog//know-your-brain-cingulate-cortex?rq=cingulate%20cortexhttps://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/precuneus
- Olga L. Lopatina, Yulia K. Komleva, Yana V. Gorina, Haruhiro Higashida, and Alla B. Salmina. “Neurobiological Aspects of Face Recognition: The Role of Oxytocin.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. August 28, 2018. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00195/full
- “Child Maltreatment 2018.” National Children’s Alliance. https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/#:~:text=Nearly%20700%2C000%20children%20are%20abused,which%20there%20is%20national%20data. Accessed August 2, 2020.