Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Democracy Now's Amy Goodman interviews addiction specialist Dr. Gábor Máté on his ideas about child development and environment:

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, autism is a whole spectrum of disorders, but the essential quality of it is an emotional disconnect. These children are living in a mind of their own. They don’t respond appropriately to emotional cues. They withdraw. They act out in an aggressive and sometimes just unpredictable fashion. They don’t know how to—there’s no sense—there’s no clear sense of a emotional connection and just peace inside them.

And there’s many, many more kids in this country now, several-fold increase, 20-fold increase in the last 30 years. The rates of anxiety amongst children is increasing. The numbers of kids on antidepressant medications has increased tremendously. The number of kids being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has gone up. And then not to mention all the behavioral issues, the bullying that I’ve already mentioned, the precocious sexuality, the teenage pregnancies. There’s now a program, a so-called "reality show," that just focuses on teenage mothers.

You know, in other words—see, it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Watch, read, or listen to the rest

Okay, this all seems very Oprah, and I don't usually involve myself with such things. But Máté makes some very compelling arguments which place the notion of childhood brain development squarely in the realm of things that do concern me, namely the way that free market ideology has contaminated the spheres of human existence that one doesn't usually consider as being part of that which we call "economics."

To be fair, I actually do have something of a background with child development issues, if only because of the courses I took when I was getting my secondary certification. And one of the things that stuck with me is how environment, in a very absolute sense, can radically make or break any child's chances for success in adult life. This much we already know. What Máté does that's new, to me anyway, is to look at a child's family life specifically in terms of the host of psychological maladies with which our entire society is seemingly besieged today.

I mean okay, I've often wondered if the rise in ADHD cases is more about parents pestering doctors to give their kids some speed to shut them up than it is about actual cases of ADHD. I've wondered if the rise in addiction rates is more about the rise of the addiction treatment industry than about actual addiction. If increased underage sexual activity is more of a projection of Puritanical fear mongering than increased underage sexual activity. (Rising depression and anxiety rates I fully accept as fact, in spite of how drug companies push Prozac and Paxil during commercial breaks, but then I think depression and anxiety are a pretty reasonable reaction to the fucked up society in which we now live.) I'm sure you get my drift. But this guy makes me wonder. If you filter out things like Big Pharma marketing, War on Drugs propaganda, ADHD mania and the like, there may very well still be a massive underlying problem.

Máté dismisses the medical profession's cry of "genetics!" as overarching cause for these disorders because there really isn't any actual proof, and instead offers fucked up brain development as the more likely culprit. Human beings, after all, unlike all other mammals, are born essentially premature, in order to allow our eventually large heads to make it out of the womb. That means that, while other animals are born with fully developed brains, humans must continue their brain development for years after birth. In short, certain psychological and emotional factors present in childhood can produce truly screwed up people later in life: if you don't have a nurturing and emotionally healthy family environment, your brain wires itself in ways that may very well predispose you to addiction, or autism, or attention deficit disorder.

And the way Máté tells it, social decisions that have been very good for business have been beyond awful for the emotionally healthy family environment.

Go check it out. It's pretty fascinating.