Romanian Orphans and the Power of Neglect

10/17/2018 - Monocle Journal

On 25 December 1989, Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were not enjoying a hearty meal or exchanging gifts by the twinkle of lights on a Christmas tree. Instead, despite their best attempts to flee in their private helicopter, they were cornered by the military of their own country and hurried into a small room in the capital city, Bucharest, to stand trial before a ten-man panel of military judges. The couple were charged with genocide, subversion of state power, destruction of public property, undermining the national economy, and trying to flee the country using funds of over $1 billion deposited in foreign banks. The trial was little more than a show, since just over an hour later, their hands were bound behind their backs and they were led into the barracks square of the army base where they had been tried and found guilty. Ceausescu was singing the socialist anthem “The Internationale”, whilst his wife swore hysterically at the crowd gathered in the square. Moments later, they were executed by a firing squad of elite paratroopers, who had pledged their allegiance to the president only a week earlier.  

The Revolutions of 1989 had begun in March that year, with anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union uprisings ensuing across Central and Eastern Europe, dismantling communist regimes in Poland, Hungary and East Germany. Just a month before the Ceausescus’ murder the Berlin Wall had fallen, and it seemed as though Romania would be one of the last hold-outs against the tide of revolution. However, everything changed on 16 December, when a group of people gathered in the town of Timisoara to oppose the Romanian government’s attempt to evict a Hungarian Reform Church pastor called László Tõkés. Tõkés had been accused of inciting ethnic hatred during a television interview by claiming that Romanians were so oppressed by their leadership that they did not even know their own rights. The protest quickly turned into an anti-communist riot, releasing the anger that had been suppressed for years by the totalitarian rule of the Ceausescus, and the army descended on the town in tanks, shooting wildly to subdue the crowds. The Romanian press did not report on the number of deaths at the time and foreign journalists were not permitted to enter the country until 22 December 1989. The death toll therefore remains somewhat of a mystery, with some sources estimating that about 100 people were killed, whilst others report that more than 400 people were fatally shot. Nonetheless, the confrontation left the country shaken and when the president addressed a large gathering in Bucharest on 21 December, condemning the riots, he was met with an unusually daring audience, who booed and began to chant “Timisoara”. It was the beginning of the end for a dictator who had paralysed Romanians since the 1960s through mass surveillance, severe human rights abuses, and economic mismanagement. And one who has also, inadvertently, played a role in driving key insights in neuroscientific research into human intelligence.    

One of the most horrific elements of Ceausescu’s repressive regime emerged from a 1966 decree that banned contraception and made abortion illegal in Romania, in the hopes of boosting population growth. In addition to this law, a “celibacy tax” was introduced, penalising families that had less than five children. The Securitate, or secret police, kept a close eye on the people, inspecting women for signs of pregnancy and reporting illegal abortions. However, many families were unable to provide for the children who were born as a result of the decree and had no choice but to abandon them to the care of the State. By 1989, there were estimated to be 170 000 children stranded in orphanages in a country that had been economically crippled by its tyrannical leader.  

Malnourished and often abused, the children were raised in overcrowded, unhygienic institutions where neglect and cruelty were well-documented. Life in these orphanages was characterised by a lack of food, a lack of clothing, a lack of heat, and a lack of medical attention. Perhaps even more devastating was the dearth of mental and sensory stimulation and the total absence of affection. The walls of the orphanages were bare and there were no toys for the children to play with or books for them to read. Children were left to lie in cribs and beds, physically weak and mentally vacant, staring at the ceiling for hours on end. Babies were not cradled when they cried, and older children were not given attention or comfort of any kind. So deprived were the children of any emotional connection that visitors to the orphanages have repeatedly noted how the children swarmed around them when they arrived, trying to climb in their laps, hug them, or hold their hands – desperate to connect with an adult who might care about them.  

One such visitor to the orphanage was Dr Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at Boston Children’s Hospital. After seeing the appalling environments in which the children were being raised, Dr Nelson and his colleagues initiated the Bucharest Early Intervention Programme in 2000, to investigate the emotional and cognitive effects of these living conditions on child development. The study involved 136 infants and toddlers between 6 and 31 months old from Romanian orphanages, who were randomly assigned to either enter high-quality foster care or to remain in institutions, following baseline assessments. Further assessments were conducted at key age intervals, with results compared between the two groups, as well as with a group of children who had never been institutionalised. The study found that the children who remained in orphanages had significantly lower IQ scores than children of the same age who had been brought up by either their biological parents or in foster families – often the orphans’ scores were in the 60s and 70s, falling well short of the average score of 100. Moreover, children in orphanages often exhibited behavioural and learning problems, as well as delayed language development.  

Brain scans of the institutionalised children further revealed abnormalities in the white matter that forms the connective pathways between different brain regions, as well as drastically reduced electrical activity in their brains. In short, the study revealed that an environment of neglect had a direct effect on the structural neural development of the children’s brains. Perhaps even more fascinating was the fact that the brain could recover from this neglect, to a certain extent. When exposed to a nurturing foster-family environment the children’s neural development improved – and with it their cognitive abilities and psychological state.  

Subsequent research has led scientists to estimate that the brains of newborn babies have approximately a hundred billion neurons, which is about the same number as adults. As the baby grows and its brain is flooded with input from the external environment, neural connections are formed and those that are repeatedly activated are physically reinforced. Fatty tissue called myelin covers the neurons in these pathways, insulating electrical impulses and speeding up the rate at which messages are transmitted. Connections that are used infrequently are dismantled through a process known as synaptic paring or perceptual narrowing, streamlining the brain’s development around those pathways that have proven most useful. The brain comes ready-made with some amazing capabilities – it can keep our hearts beating and our lungs breathing, it can execute reflex actions that ensure our safety, it enables us to convey emotion and interpret facial expressions, and it is equipped with the tools needed to learn language. But it seems the brain’s innate capabilities are only the building blocks of human intelligence – the brain relies heavily on input from the external environment to physically develop further. And a surprisingly important factor that influences the brain’s ability to wire itself correctly is positive social interaction.  

A 2003 study by US neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl provided further proof of the importance of social interaction in learning. The study showed that babies from English-speaking families who interacted with caregivers who spoke Mandarin were able to differentiate between similar phonetic sounds in Mandarin as well as a native listener would, after only twelve interactive sessions. Meanwhile, babies that were exposed to videos of the caregivers, but not given an opportunity to physically interact with them, showed no learning at all. This led Kuhl to propose a social gating hypothesis, which posits that social experience acts as a powerful portal for linguistic, cognitive, and emotional development. Without this interaction, learning is stunted and the ability for the person to access the full range of thoughts, emotions, perceptions and behaviours that make us human, is compromised.  

Just like computers, humans rely on vast amounts of information, or data, to learn. Just as a computer hones its algorithms over time to produce better results, so human babies strengthen the neural pathways in their brains that produce patterns of thought that are useful or rewarding. But children also require something more – they depend on social interactions with adults who are loving and nurturing to develop the skills that enable them to become truly intelligent, in a human sense. Without this element of learning, people become psychologically dysfunctional. They become something not fully human.

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