Many of us grew up reading stories such as The Jungle Book, a hugely popular story about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India. As much fun as it is to read about his adventures, there is more to them than morals and social metaphors. Mowgli is what’s known as a feral child (although in the stories he talks and acts like any normal child). Throughout the past centuries there have been many stories of feral children. Mowgli’s character may have been based on real children discovered, or who came forward from the wild with no language, running on all fours, and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if these stories are real, then what became of these children? Were they able to bounce back from years of isolation without access to human society, were they able to communicate? The main question is: how resilient is a child whose brain developed in isolation?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after trauma. When bad things happen to us it changes our brain chemistry. Life becomes unclear as our perceptions of our future and our vulnerability are challenged. If the trauma is bad enough we relive the memory in our minds (PTSD). The ability for the brain the recover and return to normal functioning after distress is resilience. Everyone does this differently, and at different rates, but feral children are especially interesting because of the difficulties they have adjusting to society after prolonged isolation suggest that childhood is a crucial period in brain development wherein a good chunk of resilience can be lost.
The case of feral children is a double-edge sword: We don’t know that much about them simply because there haven’t been enough to study, so that sets us back, but it’s also quite fortunate to know that almost cases have been nothing more than elaborate hoaxes (Radford). The stories go back centuries so it’s impossible to say with 100% accuracy that they’re all fakes, but the most recent cases such as Ray in Germany, and the popular best-seller “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” have been proven false. The odds of a baby surviving out in the wilderness are next to impossible. However there are some sad, and unusual cases of extreme childhood neglect that are worth examining.
Shortly after Genie’s (pseudonym) birth her father decided she was mentally disabled and kept her strapped into her crib or tied to her potty-chair in her bedroom for most of her childhood with as little contact as possible. Authorities found her after her mother sought out social services for personal health reasons when she was 13. Genie could barely walk or speak, and only seemed to recognize two words: her name and “sorry.” After years of therapy she never fully regained the ability to speak, and after many years in foster care she retrogressed back into silence (Cherry). Isabelle is another similar case, raised by her deaf-mute mother in isolation, she was found at six years of age and successfully reintegrated into society (Millero). The main reason these children have been subject of studies has more to do with language processing than isolation and resilience.
The Critical Period Hypothesis is subject of much debate, but simply stated it’s the idea that a lack of language during crucial brain development could make it impossible for a child to successfully process native language. And although Isabelle recovered much of her abilities in language (probably because she was found early on, and could communicate with gestures), isolation from an early age does dramatically impair brain function on many levels other than the processing of language.
Studies on monkeys and people like Genie and Isabelle have shown isolation has lifelong effects, but recently a study on mice found the link between social isolation and brain function. Oligodendrocytes are a special group of cells that make the protective insulating cushioning around neurons, which make up our brains communication system. Mice put in isolation while their prefrontal cortex develops causes underdevelopment of Oligodendrocytes so that their receptors can’t process information from proteins, specifically neuregulin-1, like a normal developing mouse. The result is a thinning myelin around the neuron, and delayed neuron to neuron communication. To push the point further scientists disabled the receptor in healthy mice and they behaved exactly the same as those raised in isolation (Pappas).
Truly, no man is an island. A social environment is an evolutionary necessity for resilience, without it our brains simply won’t develop enough to overcome the trauma of isolation at an early age, and trauma that comes with everyday life. As fascinating as the various stories are, I’m glad they’re mostly the stuff of fiction, and severe child abuse is uncommon. The idea of nature’s child, a Mowgli, untouched by the evils of society may teach us something about ourselves, but the reality that someone didn’t have chance at managing and living a normal life is sad. Resilience is a powerful human attribute, and proper care and nurturing is crucial in developing the cognitive elements for navigating life’s ever-changing landscapes.
Cherry, Kendra. “Genie – The Story of the Wild Child.” About Education. About.com, n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
Millero, Tara. “Isolated Children.” Palabras. Clovis Community College, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.
Pappas, Stephanie. “Mystery of How Social Isolation Messes with Brain Solved.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.
Radford, Benjamin. “Feral Children: Lore of the Wild Child.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.