Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are by Dr Lucy Maddox presents key findings from developmental psychology about how some aspects of our childhood can influence the rest of our lives. Weaving together cutting-edge research with every day and clinical examples, former BSA media fellow, Dr Maddox explains how we develop from an unconscious bundle of cells floating about in the dark of the in-uterine environment to a fully grown complex adult, revealing fascinating insights into our personality, relationships and daily lives along the way.

We’re delighted to feature an edited extract of Blueprint which is available to purchase here.

Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are:  book cover

Draw a blob of lipstick on the nose of a child who is younger than about eighteen months, and show them their reflection in a mirror, and they tend to reach out to touch the reflected red dot, or even search behind the mirror for the other child. From about eighteen months, children reach to touch their own nose instead, understanding that the image in the mirror shows a reflection – the beginnings of a sense of identity. How does this rudimentary sense of self develop into the ability to have existential crises at three in the morning as we try to work out who we are and what we are doing? And does our identity really get fixed in adolescence, or do we have the potential to change?

We tend to be taught in school about the famous experiments of Newton and Archimedes, yet not how the vital importance of affection was discovered, or how we develop our sense of self. Psychology isn’t taught in school in the same way that Physics or Chemistry is, so unless you’ve chosen to do A-level Psychology or read a book related to the subject then there’s no reason you would ever come across the juicy experiments that shed so much light on who we are as adults. Some psychology studies have captured the public imagination – the Milgram study in which people gave each other electric shocks, for example, or the Stanford Prison experiment where people were asked to behave as guards and prisoners. Yet few of these notorious examples are relevant to what goes on when we are children, and how we develop into who we are later on.

Baby monkeys separated at birth from their real mothers will prefer to be with a cloth-covered soft dummy mother than with a harsh wire monkey that they can’t cuddle, even when the wire mother is the one with the milk bottle. Before the classic study that established this paradox, affection and closeness were thought to be unimportant for parenting. This study and others revealed that love is as much a primary need as food. The types of bonds we develop with our caregivers as children are key to our ability to develop as adults, and they can even influence the way we approach romantic relationships later on. Understanding this can radically change the way we understand ourselves and our interactions with others.

Every single one of us has been a child. The roots of our adult selves go right back to our first experiences, some of them even in utero. How we think, act and interact and even how our genes are expressed can be influenced by our early years. Our childhoods can impact on how we tend to be in relationships, in times of stress or change, or when faced with tricky decisions.

Ultimately, to understand a bit more about what goes on in the landscape of childhood gives us a better chance of understanding who we are now, and hopefully a greater capacity to accept ourselves and a greater freedom to choose what to do with what we’ve got. It’s also a fascinating landscape to roam about in, full of amazing experiments and thought-provoking theories which touch on language, morality, gender, the nature of identity and the possibility for change. Because although our childhoods influence us, it’s not all set in stone, as some of the experiments on childhood resilience show. Our childhoods shape us, but so do our adulthoods, and so does our current capacity for understanding and for choice.

Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are by Dr Lucy Maddox is published by Little Brown and is available to buy on Amazon.

Dr Lucy Maddox was a British Science Association Media Fellow in 2013. Every year we provide placements for up to 15 researchers at UK news and media outlets. They spend 2-6 weeks getting first-hand journalism experience and mentoring, then reporting from our British Science Festival. You can read more about the scheme and how to support it on our Media Fellowships pages.