The Nigerian Insurgency: A Neuroscientific perspective,By Mahmoud Bukar Maina

As a patriotic Nigerian, and having lived once in the volatile northeast of Nigeria, I have grown increasingly unstable for a time and have grown insomniac and very jumpy whenever I receive phone calls from home during the odd hours of the night. I bet any regular person, not necessarily a medical doctor, would not find it difficult to relate my condition to a stress from the mishappenings in our dear country. Troubled by watching the supposed video of the Maiduguri “Giwa barracks” attack, I decided to run into the town, get a good view, in order to get relieved of the tension inside me. On the bus, I noticed a little girl, most likely below the age three, chatting lovingly with her mother and the bus driver who might probably be her father. This made me recall a paper I read on “the neural mechanisms of stress resilience and vulnerability” published by a Laboratory that I was visiting during the autumn of 2012 in Zurich. The paper talked about how our biology becomes altered by stressors, the role of parents in this, and our varying vulnerability and resilience to these stressors. That got me wondering about the condition of the common people in Nigeria affected by the current insurgency, poverty and a bunch of other stressors. In that brief moment, I thought about how parents interact and bond with their children. Interestingly, my analysis later revealed to me several complaints and reports about the poor parenting style adopted by our people in all parts of the country as a contributor to the many problems we encounter as a nation today. Indeed, the Nigerian Civil Society Coalition for Peace and Security suggested that poor parenting contributed to the conflict in the Northern part of the country. Now, this part of the story I discovered is highly unpopular!

The role parenting played in the insurgency is a matter that can be debated, but, from the scientific point of view, parenting is very essential for the normal development of child’s behavior, learning and memory, resilience etc. Many might think being very strict with the kids is central to good parenting, while being very loose with them lead to bad parenting, but verily, tuning in-between these two, I believe is important. Moreover, the contribution from fathers to parenting is also essential. However, most fathers in Nigeria contribute very little to this, often they poorly interact with their children. From the neuroscientific perspective, these factors strongly influence brain homeostasis and thus, can potentiate the development of a society with a high level of crime, hatred and violence. Findings from a research on 14,000 US children which can be found from Science Daily and the Sutton Trust revealed that failure of infants under the age of three to form strong bonds with their mothers or fathers is more likely to cause aggression, defiance and hyperactivity during adulthood. These bonds, which are formed through early parental care, were suggested to support children’s social and emotional development, which in turn strengthens their cognitive development. It was further suggested that these children are more likely to be resilient to Poverty, family instability, parental stress and depression and even if raised in poverty, are less likely to present with behavioral problems. For those with scientific interest, years of research have shown that stress resulting from parenting deficits are likely to influence our hypothalamo-pituitary axis, hippocampus, induce deficits in certain neurotransmission and influence genetic and epigenetic interactions.

In addition, good parenting is essential throughout a child’s development, even after infancy. For instance, for those who probably heard about Dr. Stone’s scale of evil, one discovers that most people rated towards the end of his scale have something different about their childhood, often linked to parenthood and/or family crisis. Though, undoubtedly, the government also plays a big role, but looking at all these highly suggests that poor parenting could be among the culprits that strengthen the development of hatred, violence and uprisings that has stricken our nation. From the Sutton Trust report, it was suggested that “if boys growing up in poverty have strong parental attachments, they are two and a half times less likely to display behaviour problems”. This simply means good parenting makes us more resilient to poverty and other stressors we encounter in our daily activities. I argue that the factors mentioned above are likely contributors to the susceptibility of our youths to the continued deception by some of our vicious politicians in all parts of the country, and is likely a contributor to the desire to indulge in corrupt practices. Therefore, nation building must start from the cradle, from home and from our communities!

However, to be fair to our parents, some of which worked so hard raising us, at times single-handedly, the other part of the story must be explored. You see, the brain is very plastic, meaning that it is able to become modified by experience, such as learning new skills, a new language, taking challenging tasks and puzzles etc. This plasticity contributes to why we learn new things even during our old age, behind the reason why the disease progression in certain brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, is significantly slowed. For instance, exercise, diet and social interactions can modify our brain cells favorably, while other factors like “feeling” loneliness – the feeling, not necessarily being lonely, pose us with a risk of developing dementia. Therefore, even if we had a poor parenting or distressing childhood, if we later find a very stimulating environment, active and exciting adult life, we would be at a reduced risk of developing the antisocial and behavioural problems induced by poor parenting. However, even if we had a normal childhood, recurrent stress, such as economic and social problems, can be detrimental to our brain homeostasis. Unfortunately, if poor parenting couples with recurrent stress in the adulthood, the effects will be very profound and disastrous. This is where our government comes in! Unemployment, poverty, lack of social amenities (e.g. electricity) and many other factors that inhibit, rather than excite us, can impact negatively on our brain functions. For instance, poverty has been shown to retard brain development, pose a high risk of antisocial behaviors and mental disorders, and reduce intelligence quotient (IQ). Unfortunately, as corruption persists, our brains are more likely to suffer more, because corruption indirectly affects the management of our economy, health system, and thus increase poverty, and therefore, the propensity to develop hatred between common citizens, crimes and violence.

My great concern over the whole situation in our country, especially the unchecked insurgency, is from the knowledge that fear, anger, helplessness and stress, such as that accumulated by the people affected, is a strong trigger of aberrant brain responses. The brain cells are very vulnerable to a range of damaging signals. As of present, there is no reliable count of the number of children affected by this insurgency and other related crimes across the country. An extensive study on the biology of stress on early life by Harvard researchers revealed that prolonged stress can derail child’s brain development, creating damaging effects on learning, behaviour and health across their lifestyle. Hence, the fact that the World Bank classify regions including the northeast of Nigeria among the poorest in the world, coupled with the unchecked insurgency in the region, these present a double challenge to the people affected and has immense long-term consequences. In fact, a community mental group research in the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Maiduguri previously reported an alarming increase in post-traumatic stress among the people of Maiduguri. I had hoped that my generation and generations to come will have a better Nigeria – a Nigeria that our parents had, a Nigeria that was peaceful and where all people coexists peacefully. Recently, researchers reported that people at the site of bomb blasts do suffer from brain injury, even if they feel normal, having no headaches, dizziness or confusion. This is terribly frightening, as I, and many people I know have been exposed once or several times to the bang of a bomb blast.

Hence, all I have mentioned in this commentary raise a serious concern about an ongoing synergy that seriously affect our people, not in the northeast part of Nigeria alone. Most of the factors (e.g. poverty, unemployment and poor parenting) are pandemic in Nigeria, and if left unchecked, it could lead to a Nigeria that would be inhabitable to the rich and poor. Therefore I leave us to analyze the consequence of all these, who knows, perhaps this will motivate people to embark on sincere prayers for Nigeria, make those benefitting from corrupt practices to ponder, and maybe, it will demotivate those youths who take as role models corrupt politicians.

The writer is a PhD Neuroscience student at the University of Sussex, UK.

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