Simple Ideas with Profound Impact

Brain Development is Progressive

We’re going back to the science of child brain development this week. Previously, we established that the development of your child’s brain is governed by three very basic laws of nature. Just to recap those laws quickly, they are:

  1. Function determines structure. This law explains why, just like a muscle, the brain grows through use.
  2. The frequency, intensity, and duration of an applied stimulus (eg. light) will affect brain growth. Increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus and you accelerate its transmission throughout the central nervous system. This law tells us how to facilitate the process of brain development.
  3. Where there is a need, there is a facility. This means that before a baby can develop an ability there must first be a need for that ability. Increase the need and it is more likely that the ability will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop.

 

Brain development is progressive

In addition to the three laws that govern brain development, there are three simple, core, universal principles that we can observe about how the brain develops.

The first core principle is that brain development is progressive.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines progressive as “happening or developing gradually or in stages”. This is precisely what one observes in the development of the brain in children. Brain structure (neurons, dendrites, myelin, etc.) gradually changes from simple to complex. As a result, it is also what one observes in the development of functional ability in children. Functional ability changes from primitive to sophisticated.

The progressive nature of brain development can be seen quite clearly in the development of human mobility. A child is not born with the ability to walk. At birth, from a neurological perspective, he functions at a reflex level. He can move his arms and legs but any movement that he has is completely reflex and involuntary. But, if he is exposed to adequate sensory stimulation and given adequate opportunity to experiment with his arms and legs, he will learn that certain combinations of movements have certain effects. Eventually, as long as we place him in the prone position (on his tummy), and as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will learn how to crawl on his tummy. He is now mobile! He can crawl for transportation! This is the first stage on the path to walking.

Now that this little one is crawling around the house on his tummy there are a whole host of things that are happening to prepare him for the next stage.

Most importantly, as he crawls around the house, his brain is becoming more organized, it is growing new dendrites, it is producing more myelin, and it is producing more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which neuroscientists like to call call “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations. He is literally growing his brain!

But that’s not all! In addition, as he crawls around the house he is developing his muscles. First, he develops the muscles of his neck and trunk. Then, once he can move forward, he develops the muscles of his arms and legs, and his hands and feet. And there’s more! Crawling on the tummy is hard work, even for a little baby, and another result of that hard work is that the baby is developing his ability to breathe. This is important because it is through breathing that we supply most of the oxygen that our brain uses. Most people do not realize this but the ability to breathe is an ability that develops. The breathing of a newborn baby is totally different from that of a grown child. The breathing of a newborn is fast, shallow, and irregular. The breathing of a grown child is slow, deep, and regular. The driving factor in that transition is mobility.

Once our little one’s brain has developed enough, and he is strong enough, and his breathing is sufficiently developed, he will start to push himself off of the floor in defiance of gravity and into a creeping (hands and knees) position. Now he will spend some time experimenting with this new thing called balance. He will push up, maintain a quadruped position, and experiment with how far he can lean in one direction or the other as he learns about his body and how to keep himself upright. All the while, he continues to develop the strength in his arms and legs.

Eventually, once he has developed good enough balance and has enough confidence in his ability to stay upright, he will start moving forward on his hands and knees. Now he is creeping! Once again, provided we give him ample opportunity to use his new ability, as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will become an Olympic creeper.

In the process, he will develop much better balance and far more sophisticated coordination, which are the tools he will need to eventually take that final journey into the unknown, learning how to walk.

So, the process of brain development is progressive. It is a magnificently conceived process in which each level of ability provides the child with the tools that he will need to go on to the next highest level of ability.

The same process happens in all other areas of function. It can be observed in the development of vision, hearing and understanding, tactile ability, language, and manual ability.

Knowledge is power

Now that you know that brain development is progressive, you have a powerful tool in hand. The simple awareness that the brain adheres to this core principle will help you stay attuned to your child’s development. This is not something to obsess about. But it is good to be aware of it because when you are it is highly unlikely that your child will skip any important stages of brain development.

But, of course, life isn’t always so simple as that. Things do happen. That makes this knowledge even more powerful. Why? Because if the developmental process is changed to any significant degree, regardless of the reason, you already have the first step towards a solution. You know that the progression is essential to good development. Now you just need to ensure that it is followed.

The human brain is a magnificent thing. Knowledge is power. 

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