Mental illness or environmental adaption?

9 Nov 2023

A recent, popular Talking Point presentation by Dr Haley Peckham offers a complementary way of understanding the brain’s response to growing up in a harsh environment.

Mental illness or environmental adaption
(Photo credit: Ben CC BY-ND 2.0)

Are the trees in the above image damaged or healthy?

The question is central to Dr Hayley Peckham’s approach to understanding the way people respond to adverse childhood experiences and is one she asked in her recent Talking Point presentation: Neuroplastic Wrap.

“I’m sure you don’t think they've got a genetic vulnerability to wind,” she joked with the audience near the end of the presentation.

While the medical model might diagnose the trees as abnormal and prescribe treatment that seeks to return them to a “normal” growth pattern, Dr Peckham posits the idea that the trees have simply adapted functionally to their environment.

By bending with the prevailing wind and growing in a way that decreases their risk of being uprooted, the trees have increased their chance of surviving long enough to reproduce.

From an evolutionary perspective, their adaption has led to success.

In contrast, by diagnosing and treating the tree’s growth pattern as a pathological illness, a medical model approach alone may lead to unintended negative consequences by perpetuating stigma or by contributing to the shame that can surround complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

By offering a trauma-informed approach that complements the medical model when diagnosing and treating the effects of childhood trauma, the neuroplastic narrative may help practitioners better describe and respond to the biological effects of emotional and psychological suffering.

A tale of two childhood experiences

Instead of trees bending with the wind, picture two children growing up in contrasting environments through the lens of Life History Theory.

When life is safe and predictable: expect to win by playing a long game

The first child grows up in a safe and predictable environment. Their emotional needs are met, and the child has access to resources that allow them to learn the benefits of delayed gratification and progress toward their life potential.

Neurologically and biologically, they grow with the assumption that life is long, safe, and predictable.

When life is dangerous and unpredictable: live fast in case you die young

The second child grows up in a harsh and unpredictable environment. Their emotional needs are not always met. Resources are scarce and support is unpredictable.

Their life strategy is likely to develop to help them survive in a harsh and unpredictable world. They learn to exploit any resources they have in order to survive.

Because life is dangerous with no way of knowing what lies ahead, it makes sense to seek immediate gratification and act on impulse.

In an unpredictable world, it’s smart to live fast in case you die young.

Which life strategy works best?

From an evolutionary perspective, neither strategy is better than the other. Both strategies are normal and appropriate adaptions to two very different environments.

The challenge, however, is that the “fast and furious” life strategy – described in the neuroplastic narrative research as likely to occur when the child has experienced more than four adverse childhood experiences – increases the likelihood of a long list of life events that can negatively affect quality of life.

Some examples include teen pregnancy and fetal death, unintended first pregnancy, developing heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and stroke, and dying early.

In other words, evolutionary success in a “fast and furious” world does not necessarily lead to an individual’s experience of health, happiness, or a long life.

Hope at the heart of the neuroplastic narrative

The good news is that our brain’s neuroplasticity –- its ability to adapt to a changing world – means that with appropriate support, anyone who grew up in an unpredictable environment can find ways to adapt to the challenges they face and mitigate some of the impacts of a “fast life” trajectory.

Indeed, the same neurological mechanisms that led to the brain’s adaptations to a harsh environment may also lead to specialised social and cognitive skills that are better suited for an unpredictable world.

For example, a group of researchers in the US is currently examining specialised brain functions including attention shifting and working-memory updating among groups of young people who are growing up in unpredictable environments. 

In other words, fast life strategists may develop strengths that – with the right resources and support – mean they are well placed to thrive in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Consider, once more, the original image of the row of trees.

With the insight that comes from understanding the neuroplastic narrative approach, it becomes impossible to answer without considering their broader environment – the prevailing wind, weather patterns, and soil conditions.

Instead of asking what is wrong with the trees and how this should be fixed, the question through a trauma-informed lens broadens to consider the bigger picture.

How have the trees adapted to their environment, what are their strengths, and what do they need to thrive?

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