Gabor Maté

“Everyone has had the experience of suddenly feeling intense physiological and psychological shifts internally at trading glances with another person; such shifts can be exquisitely pleasurable or unpleasant. How one person gazes at another can alter the other’s electrical brain patterns, as registered by EEGS, and may also cause physiological changes in the body. The newborn is highly susceptible to such influences, with a direct effect on the maturation of brain structures.

The effects of maternal moods on the electrical circuitry of the infant’s brain were demonstrated by a study at the University of Washington, Seattle. Positive emotions are associated with increased electrical activity in the left hemisphere. It is known that depression in adults is associated with decreased electrical activity in the circuitry of the left hemisphere. With this in mind, the Seattle study compared the EEGS of two groups of infants: one group whose mothers had symptoms of postpartum depression, the other whose mothers did not.

“During playful interactions with the mothers designed to elicit positive emotion,” the researchers reported, “infants of non-depressed mothers showed greater left than right frontal brain activation.” The infants of depressed mothers “failed to show differential hemispheric activation,” meaning that the left-side brain activity one would
anticipate from positive, joyful infant-mother exchanges did not occur — despite the mothers’ best efforts.

Significantly, these effects were noted only in the frontal areas of the brain, where the centers for the self-regulation of emotion are located. In addition to EEG changes, infants of depressed mothers exhibit decreased activity levels, gaze aversion, less positive emotion and greater irritability. Maternal depression is associated with diminished infant attention spans. Summarizing a number of British studies, Dale F. Hay, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, suggests “that the experience of the
mother’s depression in the first months of life may disrupt naturally occurring social processes that entrain and regulate the infant’s developing capacities for attention.”


Gabor Maté, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It
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Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Maté
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