How Utterly Important is a Happy Childhood for a Gratifying Life – An Interview with Dr. Dirk Scheele, part I.

Some people come alive in social environments and benefit, while others get isolated and lonely. The consequences of a difficult upbringing can be devastating and remain with people all through their lives. Dr. Dirk Scheele and a team of psychologists and biologists at the University of Oldenburg and the University of Bonn have been doing groundbreaking work to be able to help those millions who could lead a better life. We have this opportunity for an interview with him.

This exhaustive and in-depth interview is being published in two parts. We hope it shall be of help to many of our readers.


Dr. Scheele, how calamitous can it be when a person has experienced a difficult childhood in terms of neglect, mental and/or physical abuse?

The consequences of traumatic childhood experiences vary substantially between individuals.

The consequences of traumatic childhood experiences vary substantially between individuals. While some individuals respond with social withdrawal or aggressive tendencies and may develop severe psychological disorders later in life, others are free of debilitating symptoms. This “protection” against the negative consequence of trauma is called resilience and it is a key topic in psychological research to identify neurobiological factors which make an individual vulnerable or resilient.


Please tell us about your research in this area which is pretty vast.

A main focus of our research is the protective effect of social bonding. How does social bonding contribute to resilience and what mediates the detrimental effects of social isolation and loneliness? It is clear that social support is important for mental health and that it helps us to adapt to adverse experiences.

Surprisingly, however, we know very little about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying these effects. We use various neuroscientific methods like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and hormonal assessments to study these effects. In a recent study, the first author Ayline Maier and our coauthors found that individuals with childhood maltreatment prefer larger social distances to an unfamiliar person and experience fast touch as less comforting.

With fMRI we could show that childhood maltreatment was linked to exaggerated activation in response to fast touch in brain areas important for sensory processing. We believe that the trauma may have caused sensory dysregulations that could explain why individuals with severe childhood maltreatment often suffer from difficulties in establishing and maintaining close social bonds later in life.


You have been working on gender specific medicine for what is termed as disorders. Please tell us about this in a lay person’s terms.

It is well established that some psychological disorders are much more frequent in women (e.g. depression and anxiety disorders) and others are much more frequent in men (e.g. schizophrenia and substance abuse). It is likely that both environmental and biological factors contribute to these sex differences.

For instance, we are studying effects of the hormone oxytocin and in a recent paper from the first author Jana Lieberz, we found that the same dose of this hormone can have opposing effects on brain activation in women and men. It is therefore paramount to consider the sex of the participants in clinical trials.


On a guesstimate only, what percentage of the population out there could do better with their lives if only they were to first recognize the fact of having had a difficult childhood and are suffering from it?

Unfortunately, childhood maltreatment is fairly common in the general population, with estimates varying between <2% for sexual abuse and >30% for emotional neglect. Importantly, not all individuals with traumatic experiences in their childhood develop psychological disorders in adulthood.


Do a fairly large number of them live in denial?

It has been suggested that the much higher rate of childhood trauma in healthy individuals relative to patients with psychological disorders can be partly explained by under-reporting of traumatic experiences in the heathy group due to minimization/denial. This pattern could indicate a self-serving bias in the healthy group, but it is also conceivable that the often-used retrospective assessment of childhood traumas in patients with psychological disorders is confounded by negative recall biases.


Apart from the difficulties in social situations do such individuals lack empathy for others?

There is indeed some evidence that childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced empathy.

There is indeed some evidence that childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced empathy. However, it is important to put these findings into context. Reduced empathic accuracy can be an adaptive mechanism to deal with an adverse environment, but this does not mean that individuals with traumatic experiences are psychopaths. Studies found rather subtle changes and sometimes there are no significant behavioral effects, perhaps because individuals with childhood maltreatment have also been found to exhibit of compensatory activations in empathy-related brain areas.


Would you think such individuals also have increased irritability, changes in moods and have difficulty in regulating behavior?

Childhood maltreatment dramatically increases the risk for psychological disorders later in life. While the specific mechanism for this association are still investigated, it is very likely that difficulties in emotion regulation contribute to these effects.


Does it also result in negative thinking and a negative approach?

Individuals can process traumatic experiences very differently, but there is evidence showing that individuals with childhood maltreatment often exhibit negative cognitive biases. For instance, traumatic childhood experiences may lead to a hypervigilance for threats. That is, these individuals may respond stronger than non-traumatized persons when they hear a loud noise or see an angry face.


And this negative thought process and approach, would you say brings negative results?

Not every individual with negative thought processes will develop a psychological disorder, but a recent study indeed revealed that negative self-referential processing mediates the association between childhood maltreatment and symptoms of depression during a time of stress. This means that the detrimental impact of negative biases may become evident in times when an individual is under pressure and has less cognitive resources available to control negative thought patterns.


Do some of these individuals spend their lifetimes trying to over achieve as against living life?

Excessive ambition is sometimes described as a possible warning sign for maltreatment in children, but of course there can be several reasons why an individual becomes an overachiever. In fact, there is very little empirical evidence to support a link between trauma and overwork.


Photo: From the archive of Dr. Dirk Scheele

Read also part II to be published on July 3, 2020

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