When I was about twelve, after my parents had been divorced for about four years, my mother took it upon herself, apropos nothing in particular, matter-of-factly and with a (retrospectively) disturbing lack of shame, to furnish me with the knowledge that I was only conceived because her psychiatrist suggested to her that having another baby (ie. me) might save her intensely acrimonious and rapidly deteriorating marriage to my father.
Leaving aside the psychiatrist’s dubious grasp of professional ethics (or, indeed, any other type of ethics that I’m aware of), suffice to say it did not work. In fact, as the young are inclined to put it, it was an epic failure.
My mother’s explanation for this failure was that she, in fact, had wanted a girl. Therefore, it seems my prenatally planned mission to save my parents’ marriage was doomed to failure from the start, due to my obstinate and self-centred insistence as a foetus/embryo to develop into a male of the human species, no doubt.
Apparently, my father once informed me, very soon after my birth, my mother’s mental health, already worryingly precarious, went further downhill, and at an alarming rate.
I now understand that, because of this, my first few months of existence may have been extremely damaging to my emotional and psychological development due to a phenomenon known to psychologists as empathetic stress which I elaborate on below:
When we observe the stress of others, cells in the brain known as mirror neurons are activated; as their name implies, these specialized neurons cause our emotional state to ‘mirror’, or replicate, an approximation of the emotional state of the distressed person we are observing. This gives rise to the psychological state that we refer to as empathy.
Indeed, the effect of these mirror neurons is so powerful that we don’t just experience the other person’s distress on an emotional level, but, also, on a biological level : the stress hormone in our body known as cortisol increases, for example.
Study Of Empathetic Stress In Babies:
The psychologists Waters et al made a study of 69 mothers and their 12 to 14 month old babies.
It was found that when the mothers’ stress levels became elevated and, in this stressed state, they picked up and held their babies, the babies’ stress levels became similarly elevated (for example, the babies’ heart rates increased significantly).
It is thought that the babies were able to sense their mothers’ increased stress levels through various means including the mothers’ tone of voice, breathing rhythm, muscle tension, heart-rate, facial expressions and other subtle indicators. Sometimes psychologists refer to this harmful process as emotional contagion.
This finding is very important as we have seen in other posts that I have published on this site that if we experience significant stress in our early lives the physical development of our brains may be adversely affected.
Sadly, highly sensitive and empathetic young individuals are likely to be at particular risk of being harmed in this manner.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).