Childhood is a particularly sensitive stage of life. During those first years, not only is our personality forged, but also the basic neural connections that will shape the way our brain works are established. All the experiences we go through during those early years add up – for better or worse.
Unfortunately, half of adults in Europe and North America say they have had adverse childhood experiences, some of them potentially traumatic. Psychological research has shown that adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect, increase the risk of developing mental health disorders in adulthood, from major depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.
For their part, neuroscientists believe that the link between adverse childhood experiences and psychopathology in adulthood, is that these experiences at such an early age leave traces in the brain, changing its functioning, especially the way we react to positive situations.
In fact, the sympathy or antipathy that we perceive from our parents at a young age can not only leave an imprint on our character, but also on our brain, as neuroscientists from the University of Heidelberg have found.
Maternal antipathy affects the brain’s reward system
Parental antipathy refers to the hostility, coldness or rejection of mothers and/or fathers towards their children. It is a cold and distant behavior towards the child. These parents do not meet the emotional needs of their children, but instead show an indifferent attitude. Obviously, this antipathy – more or less manifest – of who is supposed to love and care for us, ends up leaving a psychological mark that is difficult to erase.
These neuroscientists wondered if maternal antipathy might also leave a noticeable imprint on the brain. For this reason, they recruited 118 people, some of whom had experienced adverse childhood experiences, such as parental antipathy, and suffered from psychiatric disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome or psychosomatic disorders. Other people did not have any mental health problems and reported happy childhoods.
Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging during which they performed certain tasks and received a social (picture of a happy face) or financial (picture of a wallet full of money) reward when they got their answers right.
They verified that the anticipation of social rewards caused a generalized activation at the brain level that included up to 11 different areas. In contrast, the anticipation of monetary rewards only activated three brain areas.
What was interesting, however, was that people whose parents had high levels of antipathy showed reduced activation in key areas of the brain reward network. This reduction in the brain response to the anticipation of the reward was even more intense in people who also suffered from post-traumatic stress.
This experiment demonstrates for the first time the link between maternal antipathy and impaired social reward responses at the neural level. It means that early adverse childhood experiences could indeed change neural connections, causing the brain to work differently in adulthood.
Why is the ability to anticipate reward so important?
Reward anticipation refers to our ability to represent future incentives, it is the ability to predict a positive result and, therefore, it is at the base of motivation. When we are able to predict a reward in the future, we stay motivated to achieve the goal.
In fact, reward anticipation plays a crucial role in adaptive decision making. A reinforcer assumes a target, so it triggers approach responses and increases the frequency of the behavior.
At the same time, the reinforcements produce subjective feelings of pleasure, generating positive emotions, so that the stimuli that precede them, by association, are marked with a positive motivational value. These reinforcers maintain the behavior and prevent its extinction.
In other words, they help us keep an eye on the long-term reward, plan the actions necessary to get there, make the best decisions, and sacrifice some things today to get to the point where we want to be tomorrow. And all this while maintaining a fairly positive state of mind.
As a result, the anticipation of the reward becomes a driving force behind our behavior. It gives us the push we need to stay motivated.
Being able to anticipate a reward also allows us to respond in a more adaptive way to changes in the environment. If we can predict a reward or a punishment, we will have clues as to which is the most convenient path to follow, depending on the circumstances. In fact, the brain’s reward system not only helps us survive, but also allows us to feel better by seeking those incentives.
For this reason, it is not surprising that the alteration in reward responses at the neuronal level, especially in the anticipation process, has been related to affective instability and the severity of depressive symptoms.
Everything seems to indicate that when fathers or mothers are unfriendly, cold and hostile, children are not capable of extracting reinforcing information from stimuli and situations. They does not fully develop the ability to detect and perceive reinforcing stimuli and the situations that precede them, simply because these stimuli did not exist or were scarce in their childhood.
Therefore, emotional warmth and availability are essential for children to learn to process rewards in a healthy way and to use it as a driving force for their behavior. Maternal antipathy, on the contrary, weighs down this mechanism, leaving the door open to further mental disorders.
Seitz, K. I. et. Al. (2023) Your smile won’t affect me: Association between childhood maternal antipathy and adult neural reward function in a transdiagnostic sample. Translational Psychiatry; 13: 70.
Falgares, G. et. Al. (2018) Childhood Maltreatment, Pathological Personality Dimensions, and Suicide Risk in Young Adults. Front Psychol; 9: 806.
Robinson, O. C. et. Al. (2014) Parental antipathy and neglect: Relations with Big Five personality traits, cross-context trait variability and authenticity. Personality and Individual Differences; 56: 180-185.