Book review ‘The Myth of Normal’, Part 2

The Myth of Normal, Part 2

Last week, we discussed Part I of ‘The Myth of Normal’, the new book by Gabor Maté and his son Daniel Maté. This week we turn to Part II, ‘The Distortion of Human Development. In this part, the authors deal with the core aspects of human development, from the basic infant needs, via the way we are born and developments around parenting, to their influence on childhood and the impact of the culture we live in on all of this.

Chapter 8 poses the question what human nature is, what we need for good health. Good health and full unfolding of potential will only result if basic needs are being met; this is true for any life-form – think of a tree lacking the right nutrients or enough light. Genes play a role, for sure, but: “We are freer from genetics than any other species on earth” (p. 118). For many people, this is still a fairly new idea, sometimes understandably confronting. It means that our environment really, really matters and this has huge implications for how we organise society. It also means that interpersonal relationships are of great relevance. We have an innate need for reciprocity and being attuned with others, a “neural expectancy”, as worded by neuroscientist and researcher Stephen Porges, who coined the Polyvagal Theory: “” (p. 120). Other have described this as humans being ‘wired for connection’. To understand human relationships and human behaviour, it is well worth looking into his theory, that we will discuss in a different review.

Chapter 9 explains children’s irreducible needs. What is emphasised is that we are feeling creatures, before we are thinking creatures. What we feel in our earliest stages and the emotional knowledge and wisdom we thus develop, has a huge impact on how we think once the intellectual knowledge comes online: “If emotion is the ground of cognition, then relationships are the tectonic plates that shape that ground” (p. 125). For the foundation to be sturdy, a welcoming caregiving environment is necessary, where the child can be authentic. What is often called ‘misbehaviour’ can then be seen as “a need frustrated, a communication unheard, an emotion unprocessed” (p. 127), in short: security not provided. The chapter then discusses some of the seven major brain systems as discerned by Dr. Jaak Panksepp in his work on affective neuroscience: SEEKING, CARE, PLAY and LUST, besides FEAR, RAGE and PANIC/GRIEF. Gordon Neufeldt is quoted for his four irreducible needs: 1. the attachment relationship, 2. attachment security, 3. permission to feel one’s emotions, and 4. the experience of free play. All these needs and systems have to do with that crucial need for connection and security.

Chapter 10 discusses the matter of stress before birth. The whole chapter is about pre- and perinatal psychology, the importance of intrauterine environment for the developing child and how “emotional and neurological imprints [are] embedded in the cells and nervous system of the human organism” (p. 139). It is very touching to read how Gabor is well aware of how he influenced the birth environment his wife Rae could (not) provide, due to his own unhealed trauma and the “interpersonal biology” through which we (dis- or co-)regulate one another. He actively writes himself into the story and takes ownership of his role, making visible something of the path he has walked with his family, a path that has now resulted in a book that he wrote together with his son.

It is crucial to be aware, however, that this environment is not merely an individual issue, but something taking shape in a social context, or, as Gabor often says: “Before our minds can create the world, the world creates our minds” (see also p. 366) – and, thus, a preverbal memory of what the world is like. The social context can either support or undermine these environments through all kinds of stressors, increasing the likelihood of all possible kinds of disease. Therefore, the book advocates that the womb and “ a pregnancy should be like entering a shrine, a sacred place and time” (p. 145) and like ancient peoples, we should learn to understand (or ‘innerstand’, as some say) “the sanctity of the intrauterine environment” (p. 144).

Chapter 11 deals with the medicalisation of birth and the fact that “obstetrical practice ignores the genuine and natural needs of mothers and babies – in fact, it often runs roughshod over them” (p. 148). Birthing is not a matter of “pushing and pulling and cutting and catching”, but in cultures still heavily leaning on patriarchy, it is difficult to return from obstetrics back to midwifery and regain trust in natural processes. That is a true loss, as the hormonal cascades involved foster “warmth, nurturing, bonding, protection, and so on”, preparing “the template for the mother-infant relationship” (p. 155). The increase of the number of C-sections is for that and several other reasons a cause for concern, as is obstetric violence. The chapter makes a plea for humility on the side of healthcare providers, encouraging a knitting midwife as a quiet companion for the labouring woman going through that sacred life passage.

Chapter 12 dives into aspects of parenting and how often “the governing principle is what the parent prefers, not what the child needs” (p. 161). We have touched on this very topic before in the blog series on Adult Supremacy. This, again, is very much related to the way culture deals with developmental needs of children. The chapter explains how parenting advice through the centuries has focussed on how the child can be moulded into conforming to society’s expectations. In a contact-starved society it is hard to stay close to what Darcia Narvaez calls the “evolved nest”, an environment with a lot of soothing, responsiveness, touch, several years of breastfeeding, communal caregiving, positive social support, and creative free play. This is what humans as hunter-gatherers have seen as normal for ages and the lack of it is called “unnestedness” by Narvaez (p. 166,167). Narvaez, as well as Jean Liedloff, makes a plea for treating babies with dignity as the best way to foster both health and social competence. With parents much of the time being stressed or worried, there is a lot of “proximate separation”, to use Allan Schore’s description: physically being there, but not emotionally present. With so much sociocultural pressure, parents are regularly “fish out of water” (p. 177), lacking social structures to support them, which in turn creates “a breeding ground for personal and societal malaise” (p. 178).

Chapter 13 strongly emphasises the fact that there is no justification for simplistic ‘parent-blaming’, seeing that parents have to operate in a “socially toxic environment” with a lot of alienation and a “flight from vulnerability” (p. 185). The stress this causes, leads to a defensive state, which does not allow for healthy growth and development. The “persuasive design” of all kinds of products and programmes only adds fuel to the fire and creates brains that become addicted to short-term dopamine rushes to create instant gratification instead of more long-term ‘rewards’ from inspiring relationships and experiences, leading to higher oxytocin and serotonin levels. All of this harms both cognitive and social skills.

Chapter 14 discusses the influence of culture on who and how we are: “How we function as individuals cannot be understood outside of our relationship to the larger group” (p. 198). It leads to a ‘social character’, “the core character common to most members of a culture” (p. 201). What is considered ‘normal’, is thus highly dependent on what is expected of people, even if routines or habits or convictions are in themselves hardly understandable or defensible. Social acceptability thus becomes a driving force for behaviour, even if it is to a serious extent socially constructed by corporate entities trying to make a profit from the human insecurities of never having and never being enough.

Next week, we will blog on Part III of the book, ‘Rethinking Abnormal: Afflictions as Adaptations’.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.