Sensory Stimuli Vital for Young, Speaker Says

"We should be breast-feeding children up to 2 or 3 years" of age, said James W. Prescott, a developmental neuropsychologist who formerly worked for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Sensory stimulation is like a nutrient; the brain needs it for normal healthy development," added Prescott, whose title simply means a psychologist who studies the development of the nervous system. "The brain must be 'encoded' with pleasurable sensory stimuli in infancy, or an individual's sensual, emotional and intellectual capacities can be stunted," he said.

In a recent workshop, Prescott used slides, films and an informal lecture style to explain his theories on the connection between early family life and adult violence. The eight-hour workshop, sponsored by Mothers and Others for Midwives (an Orange County group that promotes home births), was held at the Costa Mesa Unitarian Church.

Initial Stay at Home

Ideally, mothers of very young children should stay home for their offspring's first few years, according to Prescott, who has spent 25 years examining the role of early childhood sensory experiences on future development.

To develop an infant's senses of smell and touch, both mother and child should be nude during breast-feeding, Prescott maintained. "If you want to ask why American culture is such a disinfectant culture" that's obsessed with repressing natural odors and sensuality, "it's because we have been deprived of the smell of the mother's body" as infants, Prescott said. This "impacts our sexuality" and predisposes many emotionally deprived individuals toward violence as adults, he added.

Prescott also said that mothers and fathers should carry their young children a great deal, give them massages and never strike them. "Spanking, in my view, is a form of child abuse (that) begins to establish the sadomasochistic basis of (lifelong) relationships, where pain equals pleasure and pleasure equals pain," he said.

"When the pleasure circuits of the brain are stimulated, they inhibit the violence circuits," Prescott said. "Pleasure and pain and violence are intertied." Individuals who learn to enjoy intense sensual pleasure in infancy are more likely to become nonviolent, nurturing and sexually assured adults, he added.

Prescott's views on child rearing are not universally accepted, according to Dr. Theodore Tjossem, current director of the mental retardation and developmental disabilities branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the NIH. "Much of what Jimmy says is controversial. . . . I don't think there's uniformity in the field about (the importance of) breast-feeding" in infants' development, he said. Asked about whether mothers should breast-feed their children for two to three years, Tjossem laughed and responded: "That's a long time, in my book."

Dr. Derrick Jelliffe, a UCLA pediatrics professor who is head of the UCLA Population and Family Studies program, said he thought Prescott's ideas about the importance of breast-feeding and other sensory stimulation "may very well be true, but it's certainly mighty difficult to prove. . . . There may be all sorts of other factors operating (in a child's development) which may make for aggression or lack of aggression later on.

"Some breast-feeding is thoroughly desirable."

'Would Diminish Violence'

The idea that children need to be breast-fed, carried and given other kinds of one-to-one sensory stimulation for such a long period "gets many (working) women upset, (but) if we could all remember being at our mothers' breasts, we would find male violence against women diminishing. There's just no way a person is going to grow up being violent with that kind of pleasure encoded" in his brain, Prescott said.

After the first few years of life, "encoding" of pleasurable touch, smell, sight and movement becomes "much more difficult," Prescott said, and "there's no way we can function as (normal) adults with this sensory deprivation" from birth. Statistical data seem to indicate that societies that don't emphasize breast-feeding and other early sensory stimuli are violent societies, he added.

Prescott, 52, formerly worked in Washington but now lives in North Hollywood. Divorced and the father of two daughters who live with their mother in Maryland, he formerly worked as a health science administrator for the NICHD, as a research psychologist at George Washington University Medical School and as a federal science administrator for the Office of Naval Research.

Today, he is a volunteer researcher for a 2-year-old nonprofit educational organization in North Hollywood, the Violence Prevention Network, which he helped found and now directs.

In support of his child-rearing theories, Prescott points to primate research conducted in the 1950s and 1960s by such pioneers as Harry and Margaret Harlow (two scientists who worked at the University of Wisconsin's Primate Laboratory, raised rhesus monkeys in social isolation and observed the behavioral changes that resulted). The Harlows' research, Prescott says, showed that sensory stimulation is necessary to normal development. Monkeys who could see, smell and hear--but not touch--each other became withdrawn, depressed and self-abusive. They often huddled into themselves and rocked back and forth. When, after reaching maturity, they were handled by humans or were introduced to each other, they recoiled from being touched and became violent.

The Harlows, Prescott said, "recognized sensory deprivation as a social phenomenon" that produces abnormal individuals, but they didn't take into account the "neurobiological implications"--that sensory deprivation might actually interfere with normal brain development.

Other Observations

Other scientists, however, were struck by similarities between retarded children's behavior and the behavior of the "retarded" monkeys--particularly the obsessive rocking and self-abuse, Prescott said. "Functional mental retardation (resulting from sensory deprivation) is a serious problem in this country, and it is far more prevalent than retardation due to genetic factors," he said. Lack of sufficient sensory stimulation in infancy may help account for the high incidence of retardation among institutionalized children, Prescott added.

(Tjossem said that "sensory deprivation has played a significant role among the developmentally delayed" children found in institutions; however, he added, many other factors--including genetic inheritance--can play an important part in determining mental retardation.)

Later experiments conducted by researchers at the Delta Regional Primate Center in Louisiana revealed that monkeys isolated and reared in cages with furry, man-made "surrogate mothers" preferred suspended, moving surrogates to those that didn't move, Prescott said. The monkeys with moving "mothers" grew up with few of the personality abnormalities of the Harlows' monkeys. This finding seemed to indicate that movement--such as what young children may experience when they're rocked or carried by their parents--is even more important than other kinds of sensory stimulation for normal development, Prescott said.

Prescott himself initiated and administered further experiments on seven isolation-reared monkeys that had grown up to be very violent animals. Experiments he conducted to monitor brain activity seemed to indicate a direct link between brain structures which govern movement and brain structures that govern emotional responses, he said. When the monkeys' cerebellums (brain structures that govern movement) were later operated on and a small part removed, their violent behaviors disappeared, he said.

Abnormal Development

Prescott took this as proof that the monkeys' cerebellums had developed abnormally and theorized that the abnormalities were due to the animals being raised in social isolation and deprived of sensory stimulation. A subsequent brain scan study conducted by researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans found that abnormal cerebellums were common among a sample population of violent criminals and institutionalized schizophrenics, Prescott added.

"I'm not advocating brain surgery as a solution to these problems" of governing violent individuals with abnormal brains, Prescott added. In addition to the economic cost of performing surgery, there can be personal costs through loss of cognitive abilities, although Prescott and his fellow researchers "made no (pre- or post-surgery) assessment of the cognitive functions of the animals" they operated on, he said.

In the early 1970s, Prescott compiled data collected by field anthropologists on 49 primitive societies--some violent, some nonviolent--and he compared characteristics of those societies. Primitive societies where children were breast-fed for several years and given a lot of attention and tactile contact were almost always societies with little violence, he said. Conversely, violence ran high in societies where children were not breast-fed very long and were given little physical attention from adults.

Taboos against premarital and extramarital sexual activity also contributed to high societal violence in the primitive societies Prescott studied. (He included every primitive culture for which data existed on extreme violence, sexual practices and early child-rearing habits, he said.) Matrilineal cultures (in which status is determined by the mother's ancestry) were considerably more nurturing, peaceable and egalitarian than were the patrilineal cultures, he said.

Prescott acknowledged that economic circumstances may make it hard for a mother who lives in a developed society to remain at home to breast-feed and otherwise tend an infant for two or three years, but he insisted that such maternal attention is essential to a child's normal development. In cases where severe financial loss would be experienced by a mother stopping work, Prescott said, governmental, union and employer funds should be combined to provide supplemental income. More companies also should include day-care areas within their plants, and let mothers "who really have to work" take "breast-feeding breaks" to tend their infants so that "affectional bonding" between the child and parent can take place, he said.

Today, too many parents are leaving their children alone or in day-care centers removed from the workplace, said Prescott. This is "a matter of social convenience," he said, and "we have to face the fact that many mothers and fathers have other priorities; their careers are more important" than their children.

Yet "we're really developing our own killing fields" by depriving children of the sensory stimulation they need, he said. "We must start understanding how we're bringing our children up to be killers. . . . The human mammal, in my opinion, is the most violent of all mammals," but this violence is learned rather than genetic.

Through the Violence Prevention Network, Prescott said he hopes to conduct "non-intrusive" research into brain patterns of people who have been the victims or perpetrators of violence. Projects to non-surgically monitor brain patterns of abused and neglected children and violent criminals are in the planning stages, he said.

With these projects, Prescott hopes to gather further neuropsychological proof that sensory deprivation results in abnormal brain development.

Workshop participant Audrey Downes, a Chico resident and member of the International Assn. of Infant Massage Instructors, said she found Prescott's talk interesting because "I think what he has learned backs up what we (infant massage specialists) are trying to do in our work." Members of Downes' organization emphasize "touch stimulation," olfactory awareness and parent-child closeness, she said.

Janey Marquez, a Santa Ana preschool and vocational teacher who sometimes conducts "peace education workshops" for educators, said she's also interested in Prescott's ideas. "I was very impressed" with his presentation, she said. "I accept most of the information he had, and I thought it was very interesting to have that scientific background."

However, she added, "it would be wonderful if we could change the way we raise our children and that would be it--but that's not all that's needed" to improve today's world. Adults also need to be reeducated into peaceful behaviors, said Marquez.

Prescott said he agrees with that but thinks that many adults are too emotionally damaged--largely due to not receiving adequate loving care as children--to become whole human beings. "Look at what we've been doing for thousands of generations," he said, as human violence has escalated to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

However, he added, he continues to hope that modern society can reform itself, although "it's going to take many, many generations--and I'm not sure we're going to make it."

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