Early deprivation — whether it’s abuse or neglect — can affect children’s development, increasing the risk of later psychological problems.
But Seth Pollak, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is digging deeper. His focus: “How to understand why abnormal environments exert diverse effects on children’s developments.”
His work reflects interest in brain development and ”plasticity” as well as ongoing controversies over the importance of early emotional experiences and their effects on later psychological problems. Pollak, a distinguished professor of psychology, pediatrics and psychiatry, gave an update of his work and that of others at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association Saturday (Aug. 14, 2010) in San Diego.
A prime question underlying the effects of early adversity: Are emotions hardwired or learned? ”This is an ongoing debate,” Pollak says.
His studies and others are providing clues.
In one study, he showed 3 and a half year-old children a series of pictures showing facial expressions with a variety of emotions — happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust — that some experts say we’re born knowing. The children were asked which faces were similar.
“Typically developing 3- and 4-year-old children felt that anger and fear were very different emotions,” Pollak says. “Children who had been abused or neglected early in life viewed these emotions to be very similar.”
Physically abused children had trouble differentiating anger and fear.
In another study, involving 8-year-olds, Pollak’s team asked them to look at faces showing a variety of expressions. Researchers asked them to press a button when they saw a particular expression such as happy, angry or sad. As they did this, Pollak’s team recorded brain activity.
The abused children had an increase in brain activity compared to nonabused kids when they were looking at angry faces, Pollak found.
”They’re devoting a lot of brain resources” to look for angry faces, he says. When they looked at happy faces, he says, their brain activity was not different than that of the nonabused kids.
In yet another study, Pollak wanted to test if auditory input plays a role in kids’ reactions. “Is it specific to faces?” he wanted to know.
He showed children, abused and not, a series of faces with accompanying voices. Usually the facial expressions and voices matched up, but not always. The faces and voices were of their own mother, an abusive mother or someone else’s nonabusive mother.
The children were told to ignore the faces. When the physically abused kids heard angry voices, especially their own mother’s, that’s where their attention went, he found.
What does this mean in their life? They become ”experts at anger detection,” Pollak says. “What does it mean,” he asks, “to go through life paying attention to these kinds of signals?” That’s yet to be discovered.
In another study, kids listened to adults arguing and were told to pay no attention, to continue playing a game. The nonabused kids, when asked to describe what happened later, talked in general terms, saying they heard an argument.
But the physically abused kids, Pollak says, could repeat the argument verbatim.
“If you become an expert at recognizing anger, is that good?” he asks. If so, he asks, why are physically abused children prone to develop psychological problems later?
The physically abused kids, he finds, seem always to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Neuroscience, Pollak and his colleagues demonstrate that alternations in the orbitofrontal cortex among those who experienced physical abuse are related to social difficulties.