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The Limbic Imprint

Written by Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
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Our first experiences in the world affect us in profound ways. How can we best make our child’s first experience as joyous and loving as possible?

Anew baby is an extremely sensitive being—in fact, more sensitive than he or she will ever be during adult life. Yet despite that sensitivity, we don’t cognitively remember our birth experiences. Nonetheless, for better or worse, those early impressions stay with us for the rest of our lives. Twenty-five years of thorough research in the field of prenatal psychology shows a direct correlation between the circumstances of our birth and the subconscious behavioral and emotional patterns in our adult lives. We are very familiar with establishing the basic settings in our TVs, cameras and other devices. Imagine setting the tint of your television to maximum green. No matter what appears on the screen, everything will have a greenish cast. Similarly, if the brightness is set on dim, your screen will show an unusually dark picture. A similar mechanism is at work in our brains. This mechanism, called a limbic imprint, has been deliberately used for thousands of years to train animals, everything from dogs and horses to elephants and circus bears. For example, baby elephants are routinely chained to a small stake in the ground early in life. The elephant rages against the stake with all his might for a few days, until he finally stops. When he grows up and has enough strength to pull this stick right out, he doesn’t ever try.

How a Limbic Imprint Forms

To better understand the limbic imprint, we need to understand the basic structure of our brain. At the tip of the spinal cord there is a segment called the brain stem (sometimes called the reptilian brain), responsible purely for the physiological functions of the body. Even when other parts of the brain are unresponsive, such as in the case of a coma, the brain stem ensures that the basic physiology of the body is still functioning. A comatose person’s lungs and heart still function. Women in a coma continue to menstruate, and pregnancies continue to gestate.

The exterior of the brain is called the cerebral cortex, and it is responsible for our mental activity. Sometimes referred to as the “gray matter,” it’s what we usually think of as the brain—the part that’s responsible for our cognitive functions, such as logic, memory and calculations.

Within the cerebral cortex is the cerebrum, which is divided into five lobes. The innermost of these is the limbic lobe, which is responsible for our emotions, sensations and feelings. The limbic lobe is not directly connected with the cortex. During gestation, birth and early childhood, the limbic system registers all of our sensations and feelings, but cannot translate them into memory, because the cortex hasn’t developed yet. Nonetheless, the echo of these sensations lives in the body throughout the rest of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

We come into this world wide-open to receiving love. When we do receive it, as our first primal experience, our nervous system is limbically imprinted—programmed—with an undeniable rightness of being. Being held in our mother’s loving arms and feeding from her breast provides us with a natural sense of bliss and security; it sets the world as the right place for us to be.

If our first impressions of being in the body are anything less than loving (for example, painful, frightening or lonely), then those impressions will imprint as our valid experience of love. It will be immediately coded into our nervous system as a comfort zone, acting as a surrogate for love and nurturing, regardless of how undesirable the experience actually was.