The forming mind in Gaza

In thirty years’ time, whatever the situation, I predict a shortage of peacemakers in Gaza and here’s the reason why: we’ve been careless with the childrens’ minds.

Israel insists it doesn’t intentionally target civilians and maybe this is so. And Hamas deny using civilians as human shields, which possibly is true. But none of these reassurances reassure anyone on the Gaza strip – an overcrowded slice of land of nearly 2 million souls where the children have nowhere to hide.

Recently, the United Nations reported that a child was dying in Gaza every hour. This statistic of death is shocking; but in time, those children left alive may prove more so. Uniquely among mammals, the human brain forms in successive interactions with the environment around it. So how will these young minds be handling life in thirty years’ time? It may not be pretty.

Whether we’re born in Grantham or Gaza, our early experiences are the bones of our emotional life, the hidden history of each individual. They are the times neuro-scientist Doug Watt refers to as ‘unrememberable but unforgettable.’ We cannot consciously remember any of these things, yet they are built into our organism, held in our bodies, which will react in their own ways down the years, whether at home or in the office…or on the street.

In Gaza, there is no safe place for the child; only the unpredictable and the uncontrollable and the fear experienced will be extreme. The child’s brain will respond to these feelings of powerlessness by flooding the body with ‘the biochemical of fear’, cortisol.

This will focus on the immediate stress while putting other bodily systems on hold, until the danger is dealt with. Where there’s a caregiver to calm their fear – someone to help them regulate their feelings – the cortisol levels will be reduced. But war often denies this possibility by murdering the caregiver.

Probably the most stressful experience for a baby or toddler is to be separated from this figure; and if bomb or bullet removes them, the child, already in fear, is dropped into a deeper hell, with lasting consequences.

As psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt reminds us, the Romanian orphans, who had virtually no mothering, have brains much less able to cope with stress. They had no one to help them regulate their feelings when small; so in adult life, they’ll find it hard to resolve difficult feelings by talking. They’ll either withdraw or fight. For this reason, every war kills its own peace process, creating a generation ill-equipped for negotiation.

In a study of 41 murderers brains, compared to 41 ‘controls’ of similar age and sex, all the murderers were found to have dysfunctional pre-frontal cortexes. The parts of the brain normally used for social responses, empathy and self-control were under-developed, invisibly handicapped by experiences from their early years. They therefore had to rely on more primitive responses to get what they wanted.

So we won’t expect many young survivors in Gaza to become peacemakers; we haven’t looked after their forming minds.