in Thinking about psychiatry

Pre-modern and modern early environments


There are few people working in mental health who would argue that early childhood experience does not have a significant effect on one’s functioning in later life.  It’s easy to think up reasons why this should be so;  the architecture of the brain is under development during this time and  appears to be sensitive to impoverished or adverse circumstances. In his book The impact of inequality sociologist Richard Wilkinson discusses this point.  In pre-modern times he argues the distinct delineation between family and wider society did not exist and as a result the rearing atmosphere much more closely resembled that of later life.

Here’s what Wilkinson has to say (pg 266)

“The relationship between early experience and later social behaviour has often been seen as a process by which people’s relationship to societal authority is modelled on their childhood relationship to parental authority. This comes close to the idea that the function of early sensitivity is to use early social experience as an indicator of the nature of the social relationships we will have to deal with later in life: preparing us to be more or less confident, secure, aggressive, friendly, dependent, independent, trusting, or suspicious.

In modern societies, where children grow up in a nuclear family environment in which the quality of social relations might be quite different from those in the wider society, the results of early sensitivity can often look counterproductive. Many children are brought up amid great conflict and end up lacking the social skills, such as the ability to trust and cooperate, that are helpful during adult life in modern societies. Others grow up in a very secure and caring emotional atmosphere that leaves them ill-prepared for a world in which personal ambition, competition wealth, and position count for so much. But in the small groups in which our pre-human and prehistoric human ancestors lived, there was rarely such a sharp distinction between the separate social worlds of the nuclear family and the wider society as there is in modern societies. In the small foraging bands of our prehistory there was less scope for a mismatch between the social environment of childhood and adulthood. Rather than being brought up in separate nuclear families providing self-contained emotional environments distinct from the rest of society, children would have had direct exposure to the kind of community they would have to live in as adults.”

I don’t know much about this sort of thing, so if anyone knows any pertinent further reading, please leave a comment.

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  1. Gilbert’s book on depression is one of the best I’ve read for tying together the bio-psycho-social aspects of this malaise.

    There was the Buss book in 2004 on evolutionary psychology which seems to feed into this topic. But nothing more recent/updated that I know of. Would be interested in some further reading suggestions too.

  2. Hi there,

    Interesting stuff. I am a child psychiatrist in Australia and blog about parenting, particularly attachment, and this post reminded me of an a talk I went to. It was pointed out that attachment styles – whether secure or insecure – are survival strategies. So, in our society, we see secure attachment as being the desirable style. However, in a violent household, or a violent and chaotic society, it is safer to have an insecure attachment. To cry for a parent who cannot respond may put you in more danger, and it may be preferable to keep quiet and not ‘ask’ for help.

    It’s great to remember that much of psychiatry is ‘culture bound’…