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Semantics, pedantics and Neuro-mantics

A discussion of the  fascinating “Blinded by neuroscience – social policy, the family and the infant brain”  paper by David Wastell and Sue White

I was sent this compelling and interesting paper by a colleague, and it makes an interesting companion piece to the official family justice research paper on neglect, which I blogged about here :-

The paper can be found here :  –    (you need to click on the PDF to read it, but it is free)

Now, why this is interesting generally, rather than just specifically because it is an interesting paper, is because the authors are positing that the Government is about to go in a direction based on scientific research that neglect :-

(a)   causes much more long-standing damage on children than previously understood

(b)   that poor quality of care in the early years of a child’s life causes damage to the structure of the brain which is hard to overcome

(c)   and that as a result, earlier intervention, and where necessary removal is the way to tackle this

And of course, the very first piece of research published by the Family Justice Review team is on these very issues, and although it doesn’t advance as far as (c) explicitly, it certainly comes up to the shoreline and says that speed of decision making is critical and that children under two can’t wait for decisions. It certainly endorses unequivocally the viewpoint that science has demonstrated (a) and (b)

What this article does, is question the scientific studies and research that lead to (a) and (b) and suggests that a careful analysis of the source material suggests that it is not so concrete as the FJR research suggests. And if (a) and (b) are not solid foundations, moving to (c) as the public policy seems to be doing at present may be even more risky than it appears.

[As a sidebar, this argument of if (a) and (b) are right, is (c) right, reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise, and you can find that here, and shows that you simply can’t prove anything at all with logic, if you are arguing with a smart-arse :-   ]


In detail, the authors of this paper suggest that the thinking the Government are working on, that the infant brain is readily susceptible to permanent and irreversible damage from poor care, is wrong and that the truth is rather that the infant brain is resilient and has a plasticity  (by which they mean it is flexible and can adjust and will recover from early delays)

Initial caveat  –  I was concerned by the strident tone of this paper, and I was also concerned that neither of the authors (eminent and smart as they obviously are) are actually neuroscientists.   [That will teach me to judge by the titles that people give at the end, have been contacted by one of the authors, who very politely tells me that he is indeed a neuroscientist – ignore every other time I say that in the piece]

I would be terribly interested to learn whether this is a genuine schism in the field of neuroscience as it relates to children, neglect and brain development in infants, or whether one side or the other is cherrypicking data and quotes.  I simply don’t know. I’m not a neuroscientist, and though I can make sense of what is said by both sides, I am in no position to weigh up who is right.

Having critiqued the strident tone, I suppose that if the authors are right, and the Government is about to lurch into a public policy on neglect, child protection and quick adoptions based on ‘hard science’ when what they believe the ‘hard science’ says is wrong, I might be pretty forceful in my tone too.

Let’s have a look at some detail

We argue that the neuroscientific claims supporting current policy initiatives have receivedlittle critical commentary. They appear to be operating as powerful ‘trump cards’ in what is actually very contentious terrain, suppressing vital moral debate regarding the shape of state intervention in the lives of children and families.


In this article, we interrogate the nature of the scientific claims made in key documents and the ideological thrust of policy that they have engendered. We examine Allen’s first report in detail first, before developing a more general critique of what Tallis and others have dubbed neuromania: ‘the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science, to explain our behaviour’ (Tallis, 2011: 5; Legrenzi and

Umilta, 2011). Bruer’s (1999) deconstruction of the ‘myth of the first three years’ will feature prominently in our argument, paving the way for a broader critical analysis of the ‘new’ brain science and its influence on policy. We contend that neuroscience is re-presenting an older ideological argument about the role of the state in family life in terms of a biologically privileged worldview. We suggest that there is a great

deal of difference between ‘early intervention’ as defined in the Allen report and what Munro (2011: 69) refers to as ‘early help’, which includes a much wider range of family support activities. Neuromania, we conclude, is the latest of modernity’s juggernauts reifying human relations into ‘technical objects’ to be fixed by the state (Smith, 2002), which always ‘asks nothing better than to intervene’ (Ellul, 1964: 228).



Strong words there, and the phrase at the end that the State generally seeks reasons to intervene is resonant.  I feel personally that the State has moved much more towards a paternalistic approach to the lives of its citizens and away from a broad principle that people are autonomous and best placed to make decisions for themselves save in very narrow circumstances, and that the law has done the same in recent years.  People’s freedom to make bad, foolish and downright idiotic decisions for themselves has to an extent been eroded.

Criticising Allen’s report, on which a lot of the foundation of the neglect causes irreversible damage in infants is based, the authors say   (their quotes from Allen are in italics)

The importance of secure attachment is invoked:


“Children develop in an environment of relationships.… From early infancy, they naturally reach out to create bonds, and they develop best when     caring adults respond in warm, stimulating and consistent ways. This secure attachment with those close to them leads to the development of empathy, trust and well-being. (2011a: 13)”


Predictive claims quickly follow regarding the long-term effects of such early attachment patterns, especially the beneficial effects of secure attachment and the dire impact of the failure to cement such bonds:


“Recent research also shows insecure attachment is linked to a higher risk for a number of health conditions, including strokes, heart attacks … people with secure attachment show more healthy behaviours such as taking exercise, not smoking, not using substances and alcohol, and driving at ordinary speed.

(2011a: 15)”


Two studies are cited as the basis for these ominous claims. But again the evidence cited is perplexing. These are not studies of children, but adults; both use ‘attachment style’ as a way of measuring the adult personality with self-report questionnaires. Neither study shows, nor purports to show, any link between early childhood experiences and

problems later in life. In subsequent paragraphs, damaged emotionality and damaged brains are soon united, and the perpetrator of all this devastation is unflinchingly denounced.


Parents are to blame:


“Parents who are neglectful or who are drunk, drugged or violent, will have impaired capacity to provide this social and emotional stability, and will create the likelihood that adverse experiences might have a negative impact on their children’s development … the worst and deepest damage is done to children when their brains are being formed during their earliest months

and years. (2011a: 15)”



If the authors here are right about the studies of attachment and impact on later life, and the flaws that they claim, my faith in the FJR research does wobble.  Again, I am not a neuroscientist, and neither are the authors, but if we are going to be taking the FJR research as agreed research on which the judiciary can base conclusions and decisions, we need to know whether the foundations are solid or built on sand.

Returning to Allen’s report, the following excerpt summarises the final

step of his neurobiological argument:


Different parts of the brain develop in different sensitive windows of time. The estimated prime window for emotional development is up to 18 months, by which time the foundation of this has been shaped by the way in which the prime carer interacts with the child…. Infants of severely depressed mothers show reduced left lobe activity (associated with being happy, joyful and interested) and increased right lobe activity (associated with negative feelings).


If the predominant early experience is fear and stress, the neurochemical responses to those experiences become the primary architects of the brain.


Trauma elevates stress hormones, such as cortisol. One result is significantly fewer synapses. Specialists viewing CAT scans of the brains of abused or neglected children have likened the experience to looking at a black hole.


In extreme cases the brains of abused children are significantly smaller than the norm. (Allen, 2011a: 16)


Those damaged brains again. For the claim of lasting damage from fear, stress and trauma, Allen cites no specific scientific support. A significant body of work does, however, exist on the possible damage caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, reviewed by Wang and Xiao (2010). Although there is evidence of reduced volume in one brainstem structure (the hippocampus), the seminal research involves war

veterans, not children; follow-up studies have not shown lasting hippocampal damage, and the scant imaging research on children has failed to find such impact. A recent authoritative review (McCrory et al, 2012) comes to much the same conclusion regarding the hippocampus, and another much-mentioned brainstem structure, the amygdala; only under conditions of prolonged rearing in orphanages is diminished

brain size evident (see below).


Digging into the specific (frontal) lobe evidence invoked by Allen, he cites a paper by Dawson et al (1994), which reviews psychophysiological studies of the children of depressed mothers. Dawson’s evidence, however, actually goes in the opposite

direction to that claimed in the Allen report. Referring to a study on the reactions of children when mothers left the room: ‘the infants of symptomatic mothers exhibited an unexpected pattern of greater left than right activation during the maternal separation condition’ (Dawson et al, 1994: 772). More ‘positive’ emotion it would seem. In truth, there is a vast gallimauphry of neuroscience research, but little settled knowledge. Evidence for policy making does not simply repose in journals ‘ready to be harvested’ (Greenhalgh and Russell, 2006: 36). Rather, it is ‘rhetorically constructed on the social stage so as to achieve particular ends’ (Greenhalgh and Russell, 2006: 37). This seems an apt enough description of Allen’s modus operandi.


Although ‘journal science’ is invoked, he seems not much interested in what it actually says. This is ‘prejudice masquerading as research’ (Furedi, 2001: 155), of science being enrolled to legitimate an a priori ideological position favouring a larger arena for public intervention in the lives of families.


(and later)


It should now be clear that neuroscientific knowledge is at an early and provisional stage. As Bruer (1999: 98) avers, after more than a century of research we are still ‘closer to the beginning than the end of this quest’.


This point was reinforced recently by Belsky and de Haan (2011: 409–10): although the brain ‘packs a punch’ for policy makers, they conclude that ‘the study of parenting and brain development is not even yet in its infancy; it would be more appropriate to conclude that it is still in the

embryonic stage’. Neuroscientists may know the limitations of their research, but such caveats are not what politicians and proselytisers wish to hear;

Again, I am in no position to judge whether what the author’s say of Allen’s report is accurate, fair comment, or a scurrilous attack. I simply don’t know and can’t say.  But what does seem clear to me is that simply ignoring the counter arguments and pressing ahead on the basis that there is clear research with firm conclusions on which future plans can be built is problematic unless that research addresses the criticisms of it head on.

We have much the same problem with the vexed issue of contact levels for infants in care.  I have blogged before about this being presented in the Family Justice Review research as being strong, almost overwhelming views about how high levels of contact are detrimental to infants, and this underpinned entirely the Government consultation on contact, and how there is a contrary view out there and criticism that the research just isn’t robust enough to bear the weight that is being placed upon its branches.  Particularly Dr Peter Dale’s critique of the original research

[See                            ]

Again, I am not a scientist or researcher practising in this field, so I can’t resolve those debates and come to a firm conclusion about who is right. But that may well be the problem – neither are the politicians who are setting the course, or the Judges who will be deciding individual cases.

We need clarity as to whether the science on infant brain development is as claimed in the Family Justice Research, or as claimed here, or whether it is simply too early to tell, likewise with the impact of contact on children.

It also raises broader and deeper questions  – when, as the Family Justice Review intends, we collect research with a view to identifying the current state of play in a particular area and what that means for us, how are we, as lawyers, social workers, judges, politicians, in a position to assess whether that research actually shows what the headlines suggest ?   Do we have to get under the bonnet of the individual studies to realise that what was being tested was NOT the central hypothesis, but some ancillary matters from which large extrapolations are being drawn?

I don’t think it is controversial to say that neglect is harmful to children, but if we are working on the basis that science has proven that neglect is not only harmful to children but that such harm carries on into adult life and that harm caused by neglect in the first two years is irreparable, so decisions have to be made very quickly, then we had better be confident about that proof.

I’m not at all saying that the authors here have overturned the research – they are, as I have emphasised a lot, not neuroscientists. But what they have certainly done is gone up to the duvet and said “are you sure that’s someone asleep under there, rather than just some pillows?”

If you do happen to be a neuroscientist, I’d love to have a discussion about this, though it will need to be taken slowly – I’m strictly an amateur.

I’ll conclude with some wise philosophical words, from Descartes via 1980s Manchester

Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? I dunno


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

5 responses

  1. As one of the authors of the Wastell and White paper, I very much enjoyed reading this blog – it is written in the same much-needed skeptical spirit as our polemic. But could I amicably correct you on one factual point – I would actually describe myself as a neuroscientist! I have published around 20 journal articles on cognitive neuroscience, mostly empirical pieces, albeit in the early years of my career. I thought much about the limitations of the field in those days and had concerns even then about the sort of over-blown claims which were emerging. This is what led me to re-enter the fray. Best wishes, Dave

    • Oh, thank you very much! I have put in a correction – that will teach me to guess what people do by their job titles. I thought it was a really interesting article, and whilst I can’t weigh up how right you are, I thought the case for taking a pause, a deep breath and looking at the original claims again was made out. I particularly enjoyed learning that scrambled eggs make the amygdala fire, and I really wanted to crowbar that in, but couldn’t manage it.

  2. The paper by Wastell and White is very important both for its content and process. The content challenges widespread over-simplified and over-valued beliefs about brain development that have been adopted with great enthusiasm by the ‘child rescue’ professional culture.

    The paper also draws attention to a process of great concern: the ‘dumbing down’ and over-generalisation of research evidence in care proceedings on the basis of ‘one size fits all’ conclusions. The process is not new: one only need to think back to the Cleveland debacle in the late 1980s and the misapplication of the ‘anal dilatation = sexual abuse’ belief system that took hold. (Attachment theory is also misunderstood and misused in a similar way.)

    Courts should be informed of the significance of relevant research in care proceedings cases. it is also vital that such research is presented in an academically responsible and ethical way. This requires an understanding of the limitations of the research conclusions and the extent to which they are – or are not – generalizable to other samples and particularly, individual cases.

    My experience is that many social workers do not have sufficient research methods knowledge to understand the limitations of the research ‘findings’ they are citing in their court reports to support their proposals for a child’s future.

    It is vital that barristers retain the ability and freedom to challenge and clarify such ‘evidence’; rather than ‘government approved’ research being nodded through, and rubber stamped, without challenge.

    • Peter,

      I agree that the academic credentials and abilities of social workers ‘on the front line’ and their managers are just not up to assessing research in a credible way.

      The standards for entry to social work have been low and the courses are not up to developing a serious in depth knowledge base of anything. The over reliance on unproven theories, without ability to critically look at the quality / quantity o research that underpin these is the curse , leading to social workers ‘accusing’ clients using stock in trade phrases with rather great regularity. This demonstrates only the lack of critical reflective attitude to theories and the studies that underpin them.

  3. Pingback: Neurology, new neurology, old neurology, neurotic neurology… let’s have a heated debate! « suesspiciousminds

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