Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

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I love the unexpected conversations that happen these days when I tell people what I do.  When they ask, ‘So what do you do, then?’, I usually say something like, ‘I give lectures on babies’ brain development and why relationships have such an impact on the shaping of brains.’

I had just such a conversation with a taxi driver last week, when he asked why I was off to a police station so early in the morning.  I explained that the local police force – in this case Lothian and Borders Police, based in Edinburgh – were working on strengthening their Violence Reduction Partnership.  The aim of the meeting I was attending was to explore how they could work more closely with other sectors and services, helping to drive forward the Early Years Movement that is now firmly underway in Scotland.

My taxi driver, whose name I now really regret having failed to ask, then said something I would never have predicted:  “You know, that’s the story that’s really at the heart of that book Fifty Shades of Grey.”  I thought for a moment that I must have misheard.  Fifty Shades of Grey is the racy bestseller currently found in all the bookshops.  Indeed, ‘racy’ is an understated, even old-fashioned, term for this book.  It has become a bestseller based on its reputation as an erotic text, exploring sexual themes such as dominance, bondage, and masochism.

Then he continued, and I realised I hadn’t misheard: “Everyone thinks the book is just about sex.  But it isn’t.  The back story of the trilogy is about the hero trying to work through his difficult childhood.  The hype around the sex keeps folk from talking about the context for the sexual stuff –- about how a person’s childhood matters in all sorts of ways.”

It was a lovely moment of Victory.  When even brief conversations lead people to draw spontaneous links to ordinary life, then I know that the Early Years Movement is spreading to the public, not just to professionals.  However one may feel personally about the content or controversy surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey – though it was interesting to have spotted even a fashion spread based on the title in the September issue of the magazine Mums and Dads Edinburgh!  

The book’s presence in our current societal consciousness can become a site for thinking about emotional development.  We can use it as one means of reflecting more deeply on what infant neuroscience is telling us.  It turns out that neuroscience is telling us about more than our babies.  It is telling us also about ourselves.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that it is adults, not babies, who are reading this blog about a racy bestseller and thinking for a moment about its possible link to the Early Years Movement.  Our adult brains are busy every minute, interpreting, responding to, and making meaning of the world around us.  It is sobering to realise that the way that each of us ends us ‘reading’ our world –- the way each of our brains makes sense of the world around us — has been heavily influenced by the ways that other people ‘read’ and responded to us many years ago, when we were ourselves babies.  Infant neuroscience tells us not about babies, but about humans.

5 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

  1. Interesting post. Would be interested to read your thoughts on  Oxytocin and attachment too, as during love making and childbirth it peaks, and is produced when we cuddle our babies.

    1. Eva.  I love your making links to oxytocin.  I want the whole country to be curious about oxytocin!  You will see that my blog of 21 September was addressing just that topic: oxytocin and cuddling.  Lovemaking, too, comes in there too of course.  If you want a cross over between topics most people will be surprised to learn of, have a read of Michel Odent’s (2009) book, The functions of the orgasm.  In it, Odent links orgasm and birth, and he argues that technology is making love hormones — ie., oxytocin — dangerously redundant.  For him, this raises questions about the future of human civilisations.  Whether or not one eventually agrees with his analysis is not, for me, the key point.  Instead, I wonder whether or not we are even willing to contemplate his analysis.  Thanks for being in touch.  Suzanne

  2. I have spied it many a shelf or floor space during my visits. Amazing how many mums I visit relate it to damaged men and their need to feel power. Many are able to see how important it is to feel secure safe and cherished as a little one. That then spins off into discussion on how to respond to all those baby cues  between mother and baby in the early weeks.

    1. Helen.  This is SO interesting to hear.  This developmental perspective on the book is not one that I had myself considered, until I had the conversation with my taxi driver that inspired this blog.  But since then, I have had several comments such as the one you offer, so I now think this is indeed one of the responsive themes that this book has generated.  I do wish this theme was picked up more in the published debate on the book.  Every opportunity to reflect on the impact of the early years is a valuable one!   Just as your comments show:  ‘Tthat then spins off into discussion about how to respond to those baby cues’.  Another recent book that prompted the same kind of discussion was Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.  Do let me know if by chance that book is coming up in your conversations at all.  Ta.  Suzanne

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