COMMENT: Mystery of How Social Isolation Messes with Brain Solved | LiveScience

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Mystery of How Social Isolation Messes with Brain Solved | LiveScience.

by Stephanie Pappas – LiveScience Senior Writer – September 13, 2012

Just a few comments and observations on the above LiveScience article by Stephanie Pappas. I found this article interesting because in many ways it describes research that is, in effect, replicating the controversial monkey studies conducted by Harry Harlow back in the late 1950s and 1960s. Every undergraduate student in psychology is told about Harlow’s studies with rhesus monkeys. Harlow would put his monkeys through extreme forms of social isolation (thus the controversy). He would also raise infant monkeys using various forms of maternal separation and deprivation. Some experimental designs called for using “monkey mothers” fashioned out of chicken wire and bits of stuffing.

What did Harlow discover? Well, as the title to the LiveScience article suggests, the brains of these socially isolated and maternally deprived monkeys were “messed with.” Bottom line: their poor little monkey brains were fried. These fried or messed with brains would display behaviors such as social withdrawal, clinginess, hyper-vigilance, exaggerated fear reactions, and dysregulated emotion. Sadly, many of the orphans housed at Romanian orphanages today display similar behaviors. The studies described in the LiveScience article were conducted using mice (because, for ethical reasons, the Harlow experiments could not be conducted today—thankfully). Quoting the article now, we hear, “In line with previous findings [like Harlow’s], the isolated mice struggled” with tests for “sociability and working memory.” OK, even a cursory review of Harlow’s work would reveal an association between social isolation and problems with upper brain functioning. As I have blogged about extensively, upper brain functions or Executive Functions (EF) in humans are associated with such cognitive abilities as planning, appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, delaying gratification, “what if” mental modeling, mental time travel, reflection, and perspective-taking.

Undergraduate psychology students are also told that Harry Harlow and John Bowlby enjoyed a collaborative relationship that greatly benefited both. Bowlby in essence spent a lifetime trying to understand the role that the attachment behavioral system plays in the process of associating social isolation with compromised upper brain cognitive abilities, such as the formation of what Bowlby called Inner Working Models. For a detailed look at this collaborative relationship, see the 2011 book by Frank C.P. van der Horst entitled John Bowlby: From Psychoanalysis to Ethology. In specific, see chapter 5 entitled From Theoretical Claims to Empirical Evidence: Harry Harlow and the Nature of Love.

So, what would new research possibly tell us about the “social isolation – impaired upper brain function” connection that we don’t already know from the work of such ethologists as Harlow and Bowlby? I’ll spend the rest of this blog looking at this question.

Allow me to set the stage by bringing in a quote by primatologist Dario Maestriperi that I used in my September 22, 2011 post. Maestripieri bemoans the fact that ethological studies fell out of grace starting back in the 1970s when he states: “[T]he success of neuroscience led to the optimistic view that many important questions about behavior would eventually be answered by studies of brain anatomy and function, thus rendering [naturalistic] behavioral research less necessary.” What Maestripieri correctly points to is a fundamental shift in worldviews. Bowlby and Harlow conducted their studies using a naturalistic systems worldview. In contrast, neuroscientists tend to operate within the framework of genetic determinism, which holds that some form of genetic defect leads to a certain pathology. Both worldviews are capable of revealing important connections—of that we are certain. Problems, however, arise when we move to the level of intervention or treatment. Within a naturalistic systems worldview, interventions focus in on the nature of relationships within the environment. With respect to Bowlby’s work, he focused in on the nature of attachment relationships within the environment. Within a neuroscience worldview, interventions focus in on changing gene structures, sequences, or processes. This is the domain of genetic engineering. The above LiveScience article talks about how researchers have discovered how social isolation in mice leads to a disruption in certain genetic processes that, in turn, impedes the prefrontal cortex’s “desire” (speaking teleologically) to “[absorb] the benefits of social interaction during … juvenile period[s]” (quoting the article). Quoting one of the neurology researchers profiled in the LiveScience article—Dr. Gabriel Corfas—we hear, “So our lab and other investigators are trying to understand how [these disrupted neurological] pathways and these genetic susceptibilities may be linked to produce neuropsychiatric disorders.”

So, here’s my comment. Notice what is being implied above. Sure, social isolation can mess with the brain—Bowlby and Harlow showed us that. But the worldview used by Bowlby and Harlow (and many other ethologists)—that of naturalistic systems theory—forces us to frame interventions by focusing in on changing the social relationships found out in the environment. Simply put, changing social relationships out in the environment is messy business. But if we could move over to the worldview of genetic determinism (a move that Maestriperi’s quote above alludes to), then we can forgo changing messy social relationships and go for the precision offered up by genetic engineering. I may be alone in this assessment but it seems to me that the latter takes us into the theater of the bizarre. Here’s my take on what the neuroscientists are trying to sell us here: Social isolation can mess with the brain; and rather than using social enrichment to counter such effects, we propose a treatment that almost completely circumvents social interaction, namely, genetic manipulation.

In fairness to neurologists, what they are trying to say is something like, “If nature and environment do not give you the social interactions required to properly and robustly connect mid brain to upper brain, have no fear because we can artificially give you those connections through genetic manipulation.” Looking across worldviews, are artificial connections the same as so-called natural connections? This is the question that science fiction writer Philip K. Dick asks in his 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? On a very simple level, natural connections have a long developmental history and context. And when the upper brain does connect with the mid brain, the upper brain—with its focus on such things as context and time travel—taps into this wellspring of history and context. This is why trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk will often tell his audiences, “The body remembers all.” OK, but maybe, just maybe, artificial connections will get past these body memories. In cases of trauma, that might be a good thing. Or will all of this simply mess things up? I’m not sure we know the answers. I would, however, suggest that Dick’s book challenges us to use our EF functions and reflect on possible answers. I think it would also help us to keep in mind the contrasts and comparisons between the naturalistic systems perspective and the genetic determinism perspective as we engage in these ruminations. Sadly though, I think Maestripieri is right: scientists have largely given up on the realm of messy social relations in favor of the precision and, I would argue, isolation of genetic engineering. As social and political commentator Francis Fukuyama puts it in his 2003 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, “Modern biology is finally giving some meaningful empirical content to the concept of human nature [a la such work as Bowlby’s], just as the biotech revolution threatens to take the punch bowl away” (clearly echoing Maestriperi’s sentiment above).

Recognizing that my comments can often be a bit cryptic and confusing, let me leave you with a few references (in addition to the ones mentioned above) that may clear things up a bit:

1) Science, Seeds, and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life by Finn Bowring (2003)

2) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by Katherine Hayles (1999)

3) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2012)

And I’d be remiss if I did not mention that Dick’s book was turned into the 1982 movie Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. You may wish to grab a copy to watch within the social enrichment of friends. And pay particular attention (using your EF functions) to the line uttered by Ford’s character as he talks to the neurological engineer of the future: “Memories … you’re talking about implanting memories.”