One of the key messages I share in a number of my talks is the role early childhood trauma plays as one of the risk factors for developing the disease of alcoholism and/or an ongoing problem with alcohol abuse. And here is why.
We are born with approximately 100 billion brain cells but only a fraction are “wired.” It takes neurons (brain cells) talking to neurons — or “wiring” — for us to do whatever it is we do. Dr. Norman Doidge uses the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself. This “firing together, wiring together” causes the brain to form “brain maps” for everything we think, do, feel or say. For example, the act of my typing this blog post involves my fingers, my eyes, my mind recalling research, my body and its posture — all working seamlessly together in a manner I don’t even think about. It just happens; happens thanks to neural networks wiring together because they fired together to form the brain map for how I “write.”
“Research has found that core brain development, 85 percent of which occurs in the first three years of life, shows differences in brain structures and function based on the child’s experiences in relationships with others and with their social context.” Shonkoff, J. & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods. Washington, DC: National Academy of Science
It makes sense when you think about it. For although we are born with approximately 100 billion brain cells, at birth about all we can do is sleep, eat, poop and urinate, cry and breath. If our neurons were all wired at birth, we’d come out running, laughing, reading, talking and doing calculus. Now read Shonkoff’s quote again.
Because the brain continues to form brain maps and input gets more advanced and complicated (think school, sports, music, relationships…), in the first decade of life, trillions of neural networks are formed. So here is where childhood trauma comes in.
If a child is being raised in a home with undiagnosed/ untreated alcohol misuse, their neural networks for how to see, process and cope with the world are all being influenced by how their family members interact. For a better understanding of what I’m saying here, please read this excellent piece on Huffington Post by Dr. Tian Dayton, “ Diane Schuler, The Heartbreak of Denial .”
Bottom line… long before the age at which we start to have a memory of our lives, our neural networks are being formed in response to what is going on around us. And that “what is going on around us” has a profound impact on how our neural networks wire. All of this to say, here is another reason to address alcohol misuse — whether it is the person drinking too much or the person reacting to it — for our children’s sake.