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Shortage of peacemakers

08 August 2014

IN 30 years' time, I predict a shortage of peacemakers in Gaza - and here is the reason why.

Israel insists that it does not target civilians, and maybe this is so; Hamas denies using civilians as human shields, which possibly is true. But none of these assurances reassures anyone on the Gaza Strip - an overcrowded slice of land of nearly two million souls, where the children have nowhere to hide.

The UN reported recently 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 brains be handling life in 30 years' time?

Whether we are born in Grantham or Gaza, our early experiences are the bones of our emotional life. They are the times that the neuroscientist Doug Watt refers to as "unrememberable but unforgettable". We cannot consciously remember any of these things, and yet they are held in our bodies, which will react in their own way down the years.

In Gaza, there is no safe place for the child; 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 is a care-giver to calm the child's fear, the cortisol levels will be reduced. But war often denies this possibility by murdering the care-giver. Probably the most stressful experience for a baby or toddler is to be separated from this figure; and if bomb or bullet removes him or her, the child, already in fear, is dropped into a deeper hell, with lasting consequences.

As the 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 will find it hard to resolve difficult feelings by talking. They will 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 with 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 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.


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