Have you seen this image and wondered, “Is that real?”. Tried hunting down a source that could conclusively answer that only to be met by mountains of pseudoscience? If so, you’re in luck. The answer’s right here. After finding it for myself I figured it was worth taking a few minutes to put it out there just so there’s a little candle out there for folks who happen to be searching for the truth on this in the future.
About a week ago a friend of mine drew my attention to this image. It came from a popular science article (link) on the how a baby’s interaction with its mother “determined” whether its brain developed normally. Now the article itself was generally decently worded as far as pop brain science stuff goes but it hinted very strongly that it was the lack of an affectionate bond that was the primary factor. As expected, a quick google image search soon turned up hundreds of articles talking about, you guessed it, the Power of Love.
All of them basing their conclusions on this one image, no citation, no reference, just this one single black-and-white snapshot.
So where does this image come from? What’s the story? I just couldn’t find an article with that information neatly spelt out. Just piece after piece on love, love, love…
Jesting aside, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the of love impacting neural growth. There are loads of interesting research on the role of “Love” on development. Every Psych student reflects fondly or dismally on classic Harlow work for instance (Sidebar : which direction they go is a huge tell on what type of researcher they’ll end up being…..*cough*)
There’s loads of work on the long-term impact of emotional neglect during ones formative years. Still, the effect shown in the images is pretty extreme. The skeptic in me just couldn’t believe that pure emotional neglect could drive such a powerful effect.
The image popped up on some science-y places now and then. Some researchers argued that it was completely fake or simply taken at different brain slices. I’m not a structural MR expert but neither really seemed like a good enough explanation. The answer just had to lay in the original source of those images.
Finally, I tracked the image down to what is, to the best of my knowledge, its original source.
First off it’s a real image. It’s from a 1997 conference paper presented at the Society for Neuroscience in 1997 presented by Bruce Perry and Ronnie Pollard (file link). I’m not familiar with Pollard but Perry is without a doubt extremely well-regarded in the field.
Second off, the paper isn’t about the power of Love and neither Perry or Pollard ever indicated that it was. It focuses on neglect, defined as how a researcher in the area would define it. A lay person might see a mum ignoring a child’s whining on wanting a new toy and label that neglect. In the field however, the term has a far stronger implication. In a nutshell, neglect is often defined as severe sensory deprivation in multiple domains (e.g. language, physical contact, visual input, social interactions etc). As discussed in the article, some of these kids were literally raised in cages in dark rooms since they were born and were often malnourished or exposed to drugs prenatally.
So what the image shows is a brain from a healthy 3-year old and a 3-year old who has likely had all those awful early experiences.
Without a doubt, neglect is awful. Even at the scope the word is typically used in everyday parlance. I wouldn’t doubt that even that level of neglect could potentially lead to neural differences. However, these differences would likely be subtle and likely not even present at the structural level.
So the image itself is real, but when used to support an argument about the power of love, I would say that’s inaccurate at best.