It is impossible to consider the topic of joy and happiness without considering the subject of infant brain development (SEE ALSO: *Our Earliest Start).
We have to be born long before our large, complex brain has finished growing and developing. That makes the early months and years of our lives as critical in their effects on us as anything that happens to us while we are still in the womb.
Nature is extremely generous to us, and allows us to be born with billions more brain cells, or neurons, than we will ever need or use. Nature’s plan is that we have plenty of everything we need on our insides so that we can interact adequately with our external environment as we form the best of all possible brains that we will use for the rest of our lives.
As I describe under the heading “EMOTION = Energy in Motion,” the limbic area of our right brain is most essential to our ongoing survival so it grows and develops first — throughout the first year of our lives. While the left brain is obviously THERE, it is not scheduled for its major growth and development opportunities until the second year of our life has arrived.
The ‘happy’ center of our brain is in our left hemisphere. While it is crucially stimulated during our first year of life, it will not be receiving what it needs to take a major place in our ‘thinking’ later on if an infant is receiving harmful, negative, or not enough happy stimulation from its interactions with its earliest caregivers. Too much of any kind of stimulation to an infant — even supposed ‘good’ stimulation — can harm an infant’s brain, nervous system (remember always, the brain is part of the nervous system), and immune system because the most important experience an infant needs to develop its center point of calm equilibrium is APPROPRIATE care and response (to be defined elsewhere).
For now I will say that the neurons that are potentially assigned to do the job of building an infant’s happiness center — and therefore our adult happy center — are recruited to that job from birth. The body including the brain is vastly efficient. If there is not enough of the right kind of happy stiumulation (and way too much of scary and painful stimulation), the neurons that were available in the first place to do the happy brain center job will do one of 2 things: They will go somewhere else and be assigned to some other growing brain region or they will die.
Maybe it’s hard to believe, but infants are born already enlisted in a natural cell death program that nobody can escape from. Nature has provided not only enough cells to build a brain in infancy, but actually too many. That’s OK – to a point. Cell death is a part of life. It’s actually referred to as ‘cell suicide.’
We do not want to lose brain cells during our early developmental stages THAT WE WERE MEANT TO KEEP. We do not want brain cells that were available to do an important job in our brain giving up and going elsewhere to get a job to do. BUT, we have to realize that in cases of early infant abuse and neglect, this is what happens.
I make these points in part to defend myself against those well meaning people who seem to find great personal joy in telling people that it is their own fault they don’t have more of it themselves. This is a case of the ‘haves’ telling the ‘have nots’ that they are responsible for something that is in no way their fault. It is a case of blaming the victim. How well does that work?
I also need to put up a big RED FLAG here. There is a distortion of fact in the popular press right now about how adult brains grow new cells, or neurons. CAUTION here! While it is indeed wonderful and exciting news that the brain can grow new neurons, we need to be specific.
As far as is currently known the brain undergoes this neurogenesis activity in only, and I mean ONLY two regions of the brain. One involves the growth of new neurons in our olfactory, or sense of smell area so that we can continually process new smells that we encounter throughout our lives.
The other area of the brain is the hippocampus, the region of the brain that processes ongoing new experience and stimuli on a short term basis during the process of memory formation and storage (I will have much more to say about this region elsewhere on this site).
SEE for a start:
Neurogenesis is in no way a process that takes place elsewhere, certainly not in the happy center of the brain. What we DO know is that neurons in all the centers of the brain are subject to growth and improvement basically through exercise. Most simply put, neurons have axons (like arms) that reach out to other cells to make connections, as well as dendrites (like fingers) that can increase in numbers and in complexity of connection.
Certainly in our thinking we have to include natural variations that occur among people as infants interact with their environment during their brain development stages no matter what the actual circumstances of that environment may be. But I promise you that no human infant is ever going to develop what could have been a powerfully active (and larger) happiness center in their brain if they are traumatized, neglected and abused from birth (or before). It’s not possible, and this is another area of concern that we need to ‘get real’ about.
No matter how many potential happy neurons an infant was born with, if they are maltreated during the first year of life (intentionally or unintentionally) as the mainstay of their early life, they will be deprived of the right to develop an adequate happy center with which they can pursue happiness for the rest of their lives.
If we think in terms of proportions, and say that two babies were born each with multiples of 100 possible happy center neurons waiting to fall into place to do their happy job. Between these two babies, one is loved and cherished in a safe and secure environment and therefore gets to keep 85 of every one of these 100 neurons. The other baby is battered, neglected and abused. Nature has efficiently eliminated all but 5 of each 100 happy neurons, having sent the other 95 off either to do a different job for life or die.
How, please tell me, is the 5% happy neuron center baby EVER in its lifetime going to match up to the 85% happy neuron center baby? I don’t care how hard the 5% work, how many affirmations they say, how guilty they later feel for being ‘pessimistic’ or ‘negative.’
What we need here is willingness to consider factual information. Then we need informed compassion. Then we need effort to stop infant abuse and to learn how to help those who were so exposed to live a better, happier life — no matter WHAT happened to them.
But neither should we individually or socially be surprised at the extremes on the happiness spectrum that we detect either in ourselves or in others. The best that we can do is to discover completely what the 5% has to tell us about what makes us happy, and then we need to get to work by exercising the HECK out of that 5% so that we CAN GROW the happy center. Not by changing what happened as our brains developed in the first place. That is impossible. But those 5% neurons can grow dendrites like crazy, forge new connections like ‘crazier,’ and by golly we CAN find a way to live in spite of our dis-ability to have what many others have — a well developed happy center without a terribly overdeveloped right limbic brain, survival emotion (fear, pain/sadness, rage) overload.
Those of us that suffered so much while we were infants and very young, have different brains and cannot be compared to those who had a so much better start. It is not helpful to be judged as inferior by those people, or to judge ourselves as inferior, either. It is essential that we understand that although we are different, we still have the power to not only pursue our own happiness and our own calmness, but to find it.