As neuroscience researches continue to show, childhood is a time of tremendous brain development. The young brain literally changes shape and size in response to everything encountered from new environment, to life experiences, to caretakers and to relationships.
How can parents use this new knowledge to better help their children’s growth and development?
A human brain is made up of millions of brain cells (neurons). Adult brain contains around 100 billion of them. Surprisingly, a baby is born with even more, a lot more. A baby’s brain contains a lot more cells and circuits than they will eventually need.
Starting from before birth and during the first year of a baby’s life, these overproduced brain cells rapidly develop trillions of connections (synapses) among themselves. This network of synaptic connections will ultimately determine how a child thinks and acts.
Early Brain Development
Not all of the neurons and synapses will remain as a child grows. Life experience will activate certain neurons, create new connections among them and strengthen existing connections (myelination). Unused connections will eventually be eliminated (synaptic pruning).
Building massive connections, creating and strengthening them through life experiences and pruning unused ones is a remarkable characteristic of human brains. This process (experience based plasticity) allows babies to adapt flexibly to any environment they’re born into without the constraint of too many hardwired connections.
Brain Sculpting – Use It Or Lose It
The benefits of creating a brain this way are enormous, but so are the costs and the risks.
First, children require a lot of care, i.e. life experiences, before they can be independent. Second, what parents do or don’t do during the formative years can have profound impact on the child’s life.
For example, if a parent consistently shows a toddler love and care, then the “love-and-care connections” will develop or strengthen over time. But if the parent constantly punishes or is harsh to the child, then the “punitive-and-harsh connections” will be stronger instead. And because the love-and-care experience is missing, those corresponding brain cells will wither and eventually be removed from the brain network. As a result, the child grows up lacking the love-and-care understanding that is essential to create healthy, meaningful relationships in his future life.
Early life is a period of unique sensitivity during which experience bestows enduring effects. Although this experience-based brain plasticity is present throughout one’s life, a child’s brain is a lot more plastic than a mature one. Brain cell pruning also occurs most rapidly during a child’s preschool years. The density of these connections during adulthood will reduce to half of that at age two.
Now we know why nurturing and positive parenting are so important. Things can go seriously wrong for children deprived of basic social and emotional nurturing.
Nature vs Nurture In Child Development
Besides influencing how the network of brain cells is formed, early life experience potentially has another significant impact on a child’s life. Large amount of scientific evidence indicates that life experience can affect gene expression — how information in a gene is used (epigenetics) — in some cases by slowing or shutting the genes off, and in others by increasing their output.
This is why identical twins are not carbon copies of each other. Although their genes (DNA code) are identical, their epigentic markers are different from birth and continue to diverge as they interact with the environment in distinctive ways.
Even more important, these epigentic changes can be permanent and passed down from generation to generation.
In the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate, epigenetics offers a surprising middle ground. Genes are profoundly important, but so are environmental factors.
Parents’ Role In Child Development
Neuroplasticity and epigensis are two major cornerstones in understanding child development. While we don’t need to be perfect parents (and who can be?), good enough parenting can do a child tremendous good. In particular, among the different parenting styles, authoritative parenting is the best parenting style associated with the best outcome while other types of parenting styles can lead to devastating consequence.
- Welcome To Your Child’s Brain. By Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.
- The Brain. By McGill University. http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_01/a_01_cl/a_01_cl_ana/a_01_cl_ana.html
- Huttenlocher, P. R. (1984). Synapse elimination and plasticity in developing human cerebral cortex. American journal of mental deficiency.
- The Basics of Brain Development. By Joan Stiles and Terry L. Jernigan http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989000/
- Normal Development of Brain Circuits by Gregory Z Tau and Bradley S Peterson
- Fine-Tuning the Baby Brain. By Harry T. Chugani. http://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/chungani2004.pdf
- Childhood emotional maltreatment and later psychological distress among college students: the mediating role of maladaptive schemas. By Wright MO1, Crawford E, Del Castillo D.
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- The Claim: Identical Twins Have Identical DNA. By Anahad O’Connor http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/health/11real.html?_r=0
- Express Yourself. By Matt Windsor and Emily Delzell https://www.uab.edu/uabmagazine/epigenetics