Credit: Mitya Kuznetsov, Flickr CC

Why your bad mother made you a bad mother, and why it's not your fault.

It should not be chemically possible for mothers to neglect their children. From the moment of childbirth, women are bombarded with an evolutionary cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones that make them fall in love with the sticky, malproportioned red mess that just jettisoned from their womb. This concoction should make it impossible to notwant to smother your baby with affection. Oxytocin makes a mother bond with her newborn, dopamine rewards her for caring for it. Pregnancy and childbirth trigger neural plasticity, so that a mother's brain literally changes to better accommodate the act of caring for a child. And yet neglect happens. We know it happens. So how?

First, we have to understand the two main players in this circus: oxytocin and dopamine. Dopamine may sound familiar to you. It's known as the "pleasure" neurotransmitter, and is activated by most recreational drugs. Pleasure isn't actually the purpose of dopamine, just the effect. It's really more like a dog treat that your brain gives you to train you to do things it likes. "You found food! Good human, here's some dopamine." "Oh, you solved a puzzle! Who's a good girl? You are!" The reward encourages the behavior, so we do it again. Nowadays we're too damn smart and have figured out how to get our dopamine for "free," as it were, by using drugs. All of the fun without any of that stupid learning stuff.

Dopamine and oxytocin are very closely linked. Oxytocin prompts maternal behavior, which triggers dopamine, which prompts more maternal behavior, which triggers oxytocin, which triggers dopamine, on and on and on… A mother's behavior towards her offspring shapes how both of these systems develop. In rodents, the amount of physical attention a mother gives her young is directly correlated with her daughters' behavior towards their young. Highly affectionate mothers make more highly affectionate children. Likewise, the offspring of neglectful mothers have poorly developed oxytocin systems, and thus are also more neglectful of their children. The dopamine systems of neglected rodents have also been found to have higher dopamine releases in response to stress and psychostimulants, which leads to an increased vulnerability to addiction.

So this whole process becomes a vicious cycle. Neglectful mothers make more neglectful mothers, and the behavior is perpetrated through the generations. When you think about it that way, it's a wonder that our species made it out of the Victorian era with any bonding skills at all.The other, arguably more important player, is oxytocin: a neuropeptide hormone better known as the "trust" hormone. It reduces anxiety, increases facial recognition, and inspires physically affectionate behavior. Otherwise hostile rats that have been dosed with oxytocin become very physically affectionate to infant rats, licking and grooming them as if they were the mother. Oxytocin is released after a woman orgasms (a possible explanation for the stereotype of women wanting to cuddle and talk after sex), and is also released when the uterus contracts during childbirth and breastfeeding. Synthetic oxytocin is used to induce labor, and there are talks of using it totreat social anxiety disorders. You can buy synthetic oxytocin online right now. Be warned: if you do actually use this to pick up chicks in bars, I will judge you. Plus there's a chance that oxytocin makes you racist.

"Wait a minute, Katie," I hear you say. "Couldn't that be a learned behavior? Maybe they are worse mothers because they didn't have a good mother to model their behavior after? Or, conversely, maybe they don't have the genetic capacity to have a properly developed system?" To which I would say, "Look at you, thinking you're some big-shot scientist all of a sudden," or, more likely, I would say that this process happens even in cross-fostering studies (switching the offspring at birth), meaning that this process is epigenetic. Fear not, I will talk about the magic ofepigenetics and how it gives the finger to Darwin and Mendelian genetics in depth at some later date, but for now I will just say that the environmental condition (bad moms) changes the way the genes are expressed. In short, it is both nature and nurture.

The theoretical repercussions of this finding are fascinating. Oxytocin is used in both sexual attachments and relationships that require a sense of trust, meaning that how attentive or inattentive your mother was when you were a baby can screw you up forever. Quite unfortunately, this means Freud was totally right and it was your mom's fault that you can never have a mature adult relationship. And if there's one thing I hate more than people who use synthetic neuropeptide hormones to pick up chicks in bars, it's when Freud is right. In a study with humans, Dr. L. Strathearn found that women with a secure, affectionate relationship with their children had higher oxytocin production when interacting with their children, whereas mothers with an insecure relationship with their children had impaired peripheral and central oxytocin production. I could explain what defines "secure" and "insecure" attachment, but I don't feel like it, so instead I direct you to the Wikipedia page on Attachment Theory.

The good news is that now that we understand the cycle, there's a chance we can break it! Dr. Strathearn is currently working on a follow-up study using intranasal oxytocin in neglectful mothers to enhance maternal behaviors. Or you could employ the much cheaper fake-it-till-you-make-it school of thought and just pretend to love your kid so hard that they believe it. Either way, look forward to a future where all mothers are attentive, whether naturally or artificially…

To read more about oxytocin, dopamine, and the parental brain, read Dr. Strathearn's review article or check out the Journal of Neuroedocrinology's special issue on The Parental Brain.

About the Author

Katie Bainbridge studied neuroscience at Sarah Lawrence College and Oxford University. She likes brains, babies, and baby brains. She works in science publishing and hopes to pursue a PhD in educational neuroscience. She lives in New York City with a scruffy musician and a kitten. Katie believes, above all else, that humans are awesome.


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A Vicious Cycle of Neglect

By Katie Bainbridge //
July 19, 2012 //
Essay //

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