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Sensory Stimuli Vital for Young, Speaker Says

March 25, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET

"We should be breast-feeding children up to 2 or 3 years" of age, said James W. Prescott, a developmental neuropsychologist who formerly worked for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Sensory stimulation is like a nutrient; the brain needs it for normal healthy development," added Prescott, whose title simply means a psychologist who studies the development of the nervous system. "The brain must be 'encoded' with pleasurable sensory stimuli in infancy, or an individual's sensual, emotional and intellectual capacities can be stunted," he said.

In a recent workshop, Prescott used slides, films and an informal lecture style to explain his theories on the connection between early family life and adult violence. The eight-hour workshop, sponsored by Mothers and Others for Midwives (an Orange County group that promotes home births), was held at the Costa Mesa Unitarian Church.

Initial Stay at Home

Ideally, mothers of very young children should stay home for their offspring's first few years, according to Prescott, who has spent 25 years examining the role of early childhood sensory experiences on future development.

To develop an infant's senses of smell and touch, both mother and child should be nude during breast-feeding, Prescott maintained. "If you want to ask why American culture is such a disinfectant culture" that's obsessed with repressing natural odors and sensuality, "it's because we have been deprived of the smell of the mother's body" as infants, Prescott said. This "impacts our sexuality" and predisposes many emotionally deprived individuals toward violence as adults, he added.

Prescott also said that mothers and fathers should carry their young children a great deal, give them massages and never strike them. "Spanking, in my view, is a form of child abuse (that) begins to establish the sadomasochistic basis of (lifelong) relationships, where pain equals pleasure and pleasure equals pain," he said.

"When the pleasure circuits of the brain are stimulated, they inhibit the violence circuits," Prescott said. "Pleasure and pain and violence are intertied." Individuals who learn to enjoy intense sensual pleasure in infancy are more likely to become nonviolent, nurturing and sexually assured adults, he added.

Prescott's views on child rearing are not universally accepted, according to Dr. Theodore Tjossem, current director of the mental retardation and developmental disabilities branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the NIH. "Much of what Jimmy says is controversial. . . . I don't think there's uniformity in the field about (the importance of) breast-feeding" in infants' development, he said. Asked about whether mothers should breast-feed their children for two to three years, Tjossem laughed and responded: "That's a long time, in my book."

Dr. Derrick Jelliffe, a UCLA pediatrics professor who is head of the UCLA Population and Family Studies program, said he thought Prescott's ideas about the importance of breast-feeding and other sensory stimulation "may very well be true, but it's certainly mighty difficult to prove. . . . There may be all sorts of other factors operating (in a child's development) which may make for aggression or lack of aggression later on.

"Some breast-feeding is thoroughly desirable."

'Would Diminish Violence'

The idea that children need to be breast-fed, carried and given other kinds of one-to-one sensory stimulation for such a long period "gets many (working) women upset, (but) if we could all remember being at our mothers' breasts, we would find male violence against women diminishing. There's just no way a person is going to grow up being violent with that kind of pleasure encoded" in his brain, Prescott said.

After the first few years of life, "encoding" of pleasurable touch, smell, sight and movement becomes "much more difficult," Prescott said, and "there's no way we can function as (normal) adults with this sensory deprivation" from birth. Statistical data seem to indicate that societies that don't emphasize breast-feeding and other early sensory stimuli are violent societies, he added.

Prescott, 52, formerly worked in Washington but now lives in North Hollywood. Divorced and the father of two daughters who live with their mother in Maryland, he formerly worked as a health science administrator for the NICHD, as a research psychologist at George Washington University Medical School and as a federal science administrator for the Office of Naval Research.

Today, he is a volunteer researcher for a 2-year-old nonprofit educational organization in North Hollywood, the Violence Prevention Network, which he helped found and now directs.

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