In our science blog earlier this month, we talked about the progressive nature of brain development and the importance of understanding and paying attention to this core principle. Now, let’s take a look at the development of understanding as a practical application of this principle.
We grown-ups often pay a lot more attention to a child’s ability to give us information (output) rather than how much information a child is receiving (input). The development of understanding, like all other functions, goes from simple to complex. It is very progressive. At first a baby only understands your tone of voice and sounds in the environment. Then comes the understanding of simple words, then simple sentences, followed by simple orders or instructions (Wave bye-bye!) that then lead to more complex multiple step instructions. This then leads to the beginning of an understanding of time (soon, later, etc.) and space (up, down, over, under, etc.) which makes it possible for the child to understand deals or negotiations. At first, a child will only have concrete understanding. Then, as her understanding develops and matures she will begin to understand simple abstract concepts and so on.
How well a child understands, where she is on the progression, will impact her behavior and how well the child relates to the world around her. We will dive deeper into the topic of behavior in a future post but let’s talk a bit about the relationship between understanding and behavior.
People often talk about the infamous “terrible-twos”. This is the stage where a child is beginning to test the waters. This is when your child wants to get what they want when they want it. Usually that means, right now! There is no negotiating on your part. The child wants something and they want it immediately. If they do not get it they will cry, throw a tantrum, or perhaps have a full-blown meltdown. The degree of the outburst will depend on how badly she wants it, how often you have given in, and how much attention she is getting when she is “being loud”.
Have you ever seen a child throwing a tantrum at the checkout counter in a supermarket? You know the drill. She wants the candy/toy/whatever that is purposefully placed near the checkout so your child will see it. What a perfect place to have a tantrum! You are horrified that your child is screaming and you are getting judgemental looks about your parenting skills from the people around you. Or at least that is how you feel! And then there is the occasional person who asks your child “What is wrong? Don’t cry!” which gets her to scream even louder because she now has a sympathetic audience which might result in her getting what she wants. You might end up giving in just so you can keep the peace. Right? Does this scenario sound at all familiar? Are you getting anxious just reliving this scenario?
So, you might be asking, how can I minimize this kind of behavior in my little darling and make my trips to the store a bit more pleasurable? First, remember that how you go about this will depend on your child’s level of understanding, where she is in the progression to mature understanding. Second, remember it is impossible to negotiate with your child if she does not have some understanding of time concepts. If you say to your child “you can not have it now but I will give it to you later (or tomorrow, after lunch, etc.)” and your child does not understand time she will not understand you trying to reason with her.
Here are some tips to make your shopping experience more enjoyable:
Set yourself up for success
Avoid going to the grocery store when your child (or you!) are tired. I know, I know – as a parent you are pretty much always tired, but you know what I mean. Also avoid going if you’re in a hurry. It just sets you all up for frustration and struggle. Whenever possible, make a shopping trip part of your weekly routine. The consistency will help your child as it will be a part of their routine. It will also allow you to plan for the trip and not be rushed which always adds stress to the situation.
Establish rules beforehand
Make sure your child is aware of the rules before you even go into the store. For example, children should not run around the store. There are too many ways they can get hurt. This should be rule number one. Let her know that the store rule is that everyone always walks or rides in a cart while in the store. Anyone who runs is denied the fun of shopping.
Engage your child
Always try to engage your child. Talk to her about what you need to buy. Tell her how great it would be to have her help. Make it fun so she wants to participate. Young toddlers may not have time concepts but they want to do everything by themselves. They are beginning to experiment with independence. So, take advantage of this by requesting their help! Make her think you need her help because you really do if you are going to get anything done!
Keep your child busy with little tasks
Whenever possible, give your child the item you are purchasing so she can place it in the cart or basket for you.
Use the little carts when available
If you are shopping in a store that has little carts for children, let your child push her own cart with the understanding that your shopping will take longer. When children are pushing their own carts it is a good idea to place heavier items in the cart to slow them down. This way you can avoid your child running down the aisles and crashing into someone or worse into breakable bottles! So, start your shopping by placing the heavier items into her little cart. She should still be able to push it but will have to make an effort thus slowing her down. This will also make it easier for you to direct her and avoid crashing. Once, I was in Trader Joe’s with my grandson and I placed the 6 wine bottles in his cart. I told him that since he had the bottles in his cart he had to be very careful. While we were walking through the store I wondered how many people thought I was crazy as we were getting quite a few smiles as people looked into his cart. I assure you he was very proud that I trusted him with the breakables and was extremely careful as we strolled through the store. Of course, I reminded him a few times of his “responsibility”.
Be consistent and stick to your established rules
Finally, accept that sometimes you just have to leave the store. At this stage, if your child does not understand your words or does not “believe” them, you will have to show it by taking action. Calmly. If you have told your child that the rule of the store is that everyone walks (i.e. no running) and she insists on running and screams or cries when you place her in the cart, it is best to stop your shopping and leave. No complaining, no yelling, no berating. Just take action. This is not because of what others are thinking but because you want your child to learn that this rule is followed consistently. It happens to everyone and it’s not a failure on your part if you have to abandon a shopping trip. By sticking to your established rules, you are being consistent in your messaging to your child and helping her to know what to expect and what the boundaries are surrounding such an outing.
The ability to reason is a result of a much more sophisticated level of understanding than most 2 years old have. So there are many things that affect or relate to a child’s behavior (brain organization, nutrition, parenting style, etc.) but understanding is high up on the list. The more sophisticated your child’s understanding is, the easier it becomes. Well… not always, because the more sophisticated your toddler’s understanding becomes the more she will try to negotiate with you as well! In the end, that is a small price to pay. So, pay attention to the progression of brain development, keep giving your child information through language, keep engaging her in conversation and the activities of daily life, and enjoy the rewards of her output!
There is a lot to discuss when it comes to dealing with children’s behavior and we look forward to more blogs on the subject in the future. For now, let’s keep increasing their level of understanding. Enjoy the ride!
In our previous blog, How to Best Develop Your Baby’s Understanding we discussed the fact that children who are spoken to a lot and from birth develop understanding earlier and generally have a more sophisticated and mature understanding of language. As a result, they tend to have better cognitive function. A key element to remember is to talk with your child not just to your child. In our last post, we noted a recent study at MIT in which they provide proof of the importance of conversation with adults in the development of understanding and language. While your child is a baby, the “conversation” is clearly more one-sided and it may feel like you are simply talking to them. Even for babies, however, be sure to give them time to coo and babble at you. In these very early stages you are beginning to teach them about the art of conversation. As your baby grows into a toddler that back and forth becomes more crucial.
Babies who are spoken to from birth and who listen to language that is varied and sophisticated will speak earlier, use a richer vocabulary and will more quickly develop proper sentence construction. Remember, garbage in – garbage out. The reverse is also true. Correct and sophisticated information into the child’s brain will result in correct and sophisticated language coming out of the child’s mouth!
In addition to having a bigger vocabulary and more sophisticated use of language, these children will have a greater ability to foster their curiosity about the world that surrounds them and they will ask more questions.
Enter the “Why?” stage. Do you remember that phase? Is your child going through this phase now? If your child is not there yet, just wait!
- “Why is the sky blue?”
- “What makes an airplanes fly?”
- “Why can’t people fly?”
- “How come this flower is yellow?”
- “Why is spinach good for me?”
- “Why do we have to go shopping now?”
- “Why is Grandma mommy’s mom and Nana is Dad’s mom?”
- “Why is it night time?”
- “Why is it day time?”
- “What makes the sun come up?”
- “What makes the sun go down?”
- “Why do slugs leave a slimy trail?”
- “Why do some birds eat worms?”
- “How long does it take to get there?”
- “How many stars are in the sky?
Here is one my grandson asked me during one of my trips to Chicago when he was 3 years old: “Vovó (Grandmother in Portuguese), why do clouds float?”
Me: “Hmm, I don’t exactly know why but let’s look it up!”
Him: “Maybe they have helium, like balloons?”. Pretty clever, actually! Here you also see the leap from simply asking questions to formulating his own hypothesis.
Sometimes you feel like the questions will never end! I strongly recommend that you not laugh and dismiss them or their questions. What a great opportunity your child is giving you. If you do not know the answer, look it up, and let them know in a way that they can understand. Yes, the constant “Why?”, “What?” and “How?” questions can wear on a parent. Believe us, we feel you! But it really is a wonderful thing for a child to be that curious. So find solace in the fact that you have an eager learner when you’re answering “why”, “what” and “how” for the millionth time.
Glenn Doman, a very important mentor of ours used to say, “The brain is the only container that the more you put in, the more it can hold!” This is so true. It means that the more you teach a child the more they want to learn, the more curious they become, and the more questions they ask! Another advantage to welcoming your child’s questions is that when a child asks lots of questions she is providing you with a great opportunity to learn about her interests and what she wants to learn. And it’s fun! Kids really do say the darndest things!
Here are some pointers to encourage your toddler’s natural curiosity and to keep those questions coming:
As your child grows, get in the habit of including your child when you are conversing with others. This doesn’t mean that your child has to be a part of all of your conversations. However, you should not carry on extensive conversations as your child just sits there being ignored, even when they are babies. By developing the habit of frequently addressing your child verbally you will get used to naturally including them in a conversation when appropriate. The message the child receives is that you are interested in what he has to say and ready to respond to his questions and to help him learn. Your children will learn to appropriately join in on a conversation and feel comfortable asking questions. Your child will learn the art of conversation because the message you are sending is that we listen to each other, and what you have to say is valued and important. Children who are ignored or dismissed get the message that they are to be seen and not heard. And that is certainly not the message we want to send.
In addition, by answering a child’s questions you are providing information while also continuing to encourage her curiosity and her excitement for learning! Why do most adults stop asking so many why’s, how’s and what’s? Is it because we take many things for granted? Is it because we were made to feel silly for asking so many questions? Is it because we were dismissed or ignored and concluded that it wasn’t important for us to know the answer? Or is it because we began to equate learning with performing on a test and not for the sake of knowledge and fun? It is likely a combination of factors. Most would agree, however, that innovation and development comes from people who continue to ask “why, what or how can I make xyz different or better?”. Answering a child’s questions with the same enthusiasm with which they ask, brings fun into the discussion, and it conveys to them that “Yes, learning is fun!”
Be sure to also remember what I told you in our previous post. When talking to your child, whenever possible make sure you place yourself at your child’s level so that you are face to face and not talking down to them.
And when it comes to the neurological benefits of conversation, remember what we said in our post, The Brain Grows Through Use – “Brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. The single most important thing you need to know about the brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so in much the same way as a muscle. Your child’s brain grows, it literally goes through structural and chemical changes, every time it is used.” What simpler way to achieve this than through good conversation that provides your child with new information?
So keep answering those questions and when you get to the point where you wonder if your toddler will ever stop talking and asking questions you will know you have done a good job! 😉
Oh, and one more benefit is that when your child asks questions they give you the opportunity to learn something new. Embrace looking at the world through a child’s eyes and you will both have a lot of fun learning together!
Just one more thing! In case you’re still wondering why clouds float – check out the answer from It’s Okay to Be Smart by PBS Digital Studios.
Richard Scarry books have been around for decades. There are lots of them in the series so if you’re kids are into them you’ll have lots to choose from as they grow. The Best Word Book Ever is a great one to start with.
Name of Book:
Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever
Summary of Book:
Words, words, words! They define everything and kids want to define their world. Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever is frankly the best word book ever!!! From the Bear’s home to the beach, from the airport to the zoo, verbs, numbers, parts of the body, every oversized spread has hundreds of things to look at, point to, and identify
Pigs, cats, rabbits, and bears, all doing what we do every day—playing with toys, driving fire engines, and experiencing life, just like the avid readers of this classic favorite. In print for fifty years, this book has sold over 4.5 million copies. . . . That’s over a billion words learned by children all over the world. Learning has never been more fun! (Summary courtesy of goodreads.com)
Recommended Age Range:
1.5-3 years. Note this is a younger age range than listed by Penguin Random House. They list the range as 3-7 years. Our kids have LOVED this book starting at about 1.5 years of age and then moved on to other Richard Scarry books with longer stories in them by about 3 years old.
Why We Like It:
This classic book is wonderful for increasing your little one’s vocabulary in a fun way. Literally everything in the book is labeled and kids love looking through the pictures and talking about everything they see. We found that our kids really started to enjoy it at about 1.5 years of age. It’s also a helpful tool in developing language as it aides with the first step of developing understanding. Before children can perfect language they need to develop understanding and one of the best ways to develop understanding is through hearing and talking about anything and everything. This book provides a great canvas on which to do that. Since everything is labeled it often reminds us as adults to point out things we might otherwise gloss over. And it provides opportunities to take any number of tangents about items or topics that your child shows an interest in.
If you speak Spanish (or want to learn Spanish along with your child!) then the Spanish Edition is great as it lists everything in both English and Spanish. So it’s a wonderful way to build vocabulary in both languages.
Once your child has the attention span for slightly longer stories you can move on to some of the other great Richard Scarry books. These are some of our favorites:
- Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
- Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?
- Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World
In Cars and Trucks and Things That Go our kids love looking for Goldbug on every page. Since this is really one long ongoing story we started a rule at bedtime that we would do 6 pages at a time and would keep a bookmark in the book to pick up where we left off each night. This helped keep bedtime reading from stretching on for too long! 😉 The other two, What Do People Do All Day? and Busy, Busy World are good compilations of shorter stories that you can do piecemeal with your kids. As we mentioned, these books are classics so some of the content can be outdated but it can also make for fun sharing of stories. “Kids, this is what pencil sharpeners looked like in the classroom when I was a kid…”
We hope you and your kids enjoy reading these ones as much as we have!
Children are born with a natural instinct to learn. They are constantly trying to figure out how something works: feeling it, picking stuff up, tasting everything! They love to learn. There is nothing better than looking at the world through a child’s eyes. It is a wonderful thing to experience. The more you teach a child, the more curious they become about the world around them, and the more they want to learn.
As newborns grow, the functions of vision, hearing and understanding, and tactile ability play an increasingly important role in how they learn. It’s important to take advantage of the visual, auditory and tactile pathways to begin developing your baby’s understanding of his environment.
Today, we’ll focus on the auditory/understanding function. Before we expect output we must give input. In other words, before you can expect your child to speak we must teach her to understand spoken language. The more direct language your baby hears, the earlier she will understand and the earlier she will follow instructions. As a result, children who are spoken to a lot throughout the day, and from birth, have a broader and more sophisticated understanding.
Two studies highlight just how important this simple practice is for a child’s brain.
- The first is a 1995 University of Kansas research study that focused on vocabulary and the number of words heard by children. The researchers discovered that poor children heard about 600 words/hour, middle class children heard about 1200 words/hour, and children from professional families heard about 2100 words/hour. By age 3 the poor children heard about 3 million less words than the children from professional families. This matters because in this study IQ and success in school correlated closely with the number of words heard early in life. Talking to children from the time they are born has a tremendous impact on brain development and future cognitive/intellectual function.
- The second study, just published in February 2018, builds on the U of K study and was done at MIT. In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the importance of how we talk to children, not just how much we talk to them. This study provided clear proof that the critical factor in developing understanding is to actually engage children as you are speaking with them. The children who had the highest number of conversation experiences where there was give and take between parent and child were the ones who had the most brain activity in the language centers of the brain and the most brain growth. The study also found that these results correlated strongly on standardized tests of language skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning.
So, hearing words directly from a person interacting with the child face-to-face is what has the most impact. Aside from other concerns, this means that putting a child in front of an iPad, smart phone, or TV is not the same thing as a live person talking to the child.
This study helps illustrate the first law of brain development, “Function determines Structure”, which we explained in our previous blog post. When we speak to children using a rich, varied, and sophisticated vocabulary, and engage them in the dance of interactive communication, we literally grow the brain by creating new auditory pathways and reinforcing the pathways that already exist. The result is better understanding and eventually better cognitive skills in all areas of communication. Such a simple action with such powerful results!
So, how do we develop understanding?
It is actually very easy, especially for those of us who like to talk and to be around children. But it can be a bit of a challenge for those of us who are more on the quiet side and are not so sure what to say to a child. First, let’s not ignore the fact that we are all too often connected to our own devices and they take time away from us truly being with our children. So, you need to discipline yourself regarding time spent on your smartphone or other device when you are with your baby or toddler. Once you get this out of the way, you just have to be conscious of your surroundings and use this opportunity to talk.
One of the simplest ways to teach babies is to talk to them about everything that is around them. Here are just a few examples of what to say:
- When your baby wakes up – “Good morning beautiful! Did you sleep well? Let’s get you changed…”
- When you are nursing her – “I love you so much! Your skin is so soft. Your toes are so cute (as you stroke her toes)…”
- When you are changing his diaper – “Phew, you stink! Let’s get you cleaned! While changing him take advantage to touch his nose and tell him “nose”, touch his mouth and tell him “mouth”, touch his ears and say “ears” if touching both or “ear” if touching one ear and so on…
- When you are wearing her – Point out things that are close to her and name them. Stop by a flower and say “flower”, “This flower is so beautiful!”, “It is a yellow flower”…
- When you are taking a walk with baby in a stroller talk to your baby – “Let’s go for a walk”, “Look at that dog!”, “He’s a big dog”, “Wow, there are so many cars on the street!”, “Is the sun bothering you?”, “Let me put the cover up to get the sun out of your eyes…”
- When you are driving somewhere – “Let me put you in the car”, “Here is a “toy” for you to look at!”, “Isn’t it pretty?!”, We are going to visit daddy at work”, “I am taking you to daycare and after that I am going to work” and so on.
- Sing! When you are cooking, cleaning, driving or just cuddling with your child. Children love music and as they grow they love to dance! Sing children’s songs and other songs you and your child enjoy listening to.
Opportunities for talking are everywhere. You can make the most of your engagement with your child by paying attention to the following points:
Provide New Information
In order to change the brain we must regularly provide new information. If we keep teaching the same thing over and over again, past the point where the child has learned the information, eventually the brain just tunes out. But, when we provide new information the brain is at attention and it grows and develops!
Provide Correct Information
You also want to make sure that the information you provide is correct information. Another basic law is that when we put garbage in, we get garbage out. Make sure that you are giving correct information. “Baby talk” teaches language that will need to be corrected later. Best to teach it correctly right from the beginning.
Place yourself in the best position
When speaking to your baby make sure your face is facing his and that you are close to him. This is especially important for babies in their first 3 months of life when their vision is immature. As your baby grows you can begin to distance yourself but make sure your baby is aware that you are talking to her. If she is not, you are too far away.
When speaking to a toddler and young child it is best if you get down to the child’s level whenever possible. By this we mean, bend down or get down on one knee so that you are face to face with them. This puts you both on more even ground as opposed to you literally talking down to them. It makes a child more comfortable and draws their attention to what you are saying while also encouraging a response. It shows them that they have your undivided attention and that you would like the same attention from them. It is a lesson in communication and listening skills. Believe me, your child will appreciate this simple act! My grandson at 3 years of age said to my daughter, “Vovó (grandmother in Portuguese) always kneels down when she talks to me and I really like that!” I was very happy to hear that he noticed this small act and even happier that he appreciated it!
In addition to talking to your child about everything, be sure to read lots of children’s books beginning from birth.
Playing with your child gives you a great opportunity to talk and different games provide you with varied vocabulary to use. When building with legos or blocks talk about what you are doing, describe the shapes of the blocks, the colors and so on. Make up a story to go with the game! When playing outdoors you have all of nature to talk about. Be sure to bring in all the senses and talk about how things feel, smell, etc. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to use language.
Keep this in mind when you welcome your baby home – she is an empty vessel ready to learn and grow. By speaking to your child about the world that surrounds her and by using rich vocabulary you are laying the foundation for a child who will have a sophisticated level of understanding and be an enthusiastic lifelong learner.
Keep talking to and with your child no matter their age!
In Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit asks the King, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” “Begin at the beginning”, the King replies gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” And so we shall!
Raising a BrainFit Kid is a heck of a lot of fun and actually a lot easier than you might imagine. Because we want you to feel complete confidence in your ability to “Parent with the Brain in Mind” we believe it is important for you to understand the science that underpins everything we do. It’s absolutely fascinating and really important because raising a BrainFit Kid is really important. Here are just three reasons why. First, 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life! Second, there are only about 2000 days from when a child is born to when she starts kindergarten. Third, according to a study done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, investment in early childhood development yields a 7 to 1 return (ROI) over a child’s lifetime. So you see, every day matters. Let’s get started!
The human brain is a great paradox, simultaneously complex and simple. It is, without question, the most complicated thing in the known universe. Yet, its development is governed by some very basic laws of nature. Today, we’re going to look at the first of those laws, a simple law of nature that says that function determines structure.
Function determines Structure
The relationship between function and structure is seen throughout nature and influences many fields of endeavor. The law is very easy to observe in the human body, particularly in the musculoskeletal system. If I work out regularly (lifting weights, cardiovascular exercise, stretching, etc.) my muscles will develop, becoming bigger and more effective, and my body will be well toned, flexible, and agile. How I work out will influence how my body looks. Just think of the different body types of long distance runners compared to sprinters. My body structure will change according to how much emphasis I place on one type of exercise or another.
Take this gymnast on the pommel horse. He didn’t get those muscles and that finely tuned body sitting on the sofa all day eating potato chips. He got that way working out in the gym. And he has the body type he has because of the type of exercises he does regularly. Function determines structure.
There are two important corollaries to this law. First, that a lack of function will result in a lack of structure. This is called atrophy. Let’s say you break your left leg while skiing. Your leg is placed in a cast to immobilize it and promote healing. When the cast is removed you see a big difference in the appearance of the left leg compared to the right leg. It’s smaller! Lack of function (due to immobility) has resulted in atrophy of your quadricep, hamstring, and calf muscles. The second corollary is that abnormal function will result in abnormal structure. We see this often in brain-injured children especially when their brain-injury affects motor development. Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy (read brain-injury) usually spend a lot of time visiting orthopedic surgeons because they often develop structural problems as a result of not developing proper motor function.
The magnificent thing about the human body is that the law, function determines structure, also applies to the human brain. You may have heard of the term, brain plasticity. Well, brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. So, the single most important thing you need to know about the brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so in much the same way as a muscle. Your child’s brain grows, it literally goes through structural and chemical changes, every time it is used. This is the key to understanding everything about the development of human ability.
Every face seen helps to develop vision, every sound heard helps to develop hearing, every caress felt helps to develop tactile ability… every experience changes the brain. It happens because it is a law of nature.
Let’s take a deeper look at brain plasticity. Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the ability of human brain to change its physical structure and biochemistry as a result of stimulation from the environment (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory), the use of motor function (mobility, language, and manual ability) and the presence of adequate nutrition. This change takes place in the development of new brain cells (neurons), new cell structures (dendrites and myelin), and new connections between neurons (synapses). The term plasticity is not meant to imply that the brain is somehow like plastic but rather refers to the brain’s malleability.
While interest in brain plasticity is all the rage these days, it was not always so. When we began our work with children more than forty years ago, the standard dogma amongst doctors and educators was that the brain could not be changed. We were often accused of being charlatans for suggesting otherwise. The story of how all of that changed is an interesting one.
Brain plasticity has been an area of scientific interest for more than a century. Boris Klosovskii, a Russian neurophysiologist, started his work in this field in 1934. He performed many classic experiments that demonstrated conclusively that placing newborn puppies and kittens on a constantly revolving turntable (think record player) increased structural development in the balance centers of their brains by an astonishing 32% in just 30 days! Neurophysiologists working with a variety of animal species, have known since the 1950’s that increased environmental stimulation creates structural changes in the brain along with improved ability.
For several decades in the latter part of the last century, brain plasticity in human beings was also suspected by many neurophysiologists and by a small number of people pioneering new approaches to the developmental problems of brain-injured children.
Glenn Doman, one of the great pioneers in work with brain-injured children, in his 1963 book, How to Teach Your Baby to Read, said:
“It had always been assumed that neurological growth and its product, ability, were a static and irrevocable fact: This child was capable and that child was not. This child was bright and that child was not. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that neurological growth, which we had always considered a static and irrevocable fact, is a dynamic and ever changing process.”
Neurophysiologist David Krech of the University of California at Berkeley was one of the giants of his profession. Over the course of his career he studied the effect of environmental enrichment and environmental deprivation on the brains of young rats. His research clearly demonstrated that enrichment resulted in larger, heavier, more complex brains, and ‘smarter’ rats; and deprivation resulted in smaller, lighter, simple brains, and ‘dumber’ rats.
Krech proved that neuroplasticity existed in rats, but he knew in his heart that the phenomenon had to extend beyond rats. In a 1966 paper, he wrote:
“Although it would be scientifically unjustified to conclude at this stage that our results do apply to people, it would, I think, be socially criminal to assume that they do not apply – and, so assuming, fail to take account of the implications. For, if our findings do apply to people, then we are crippling many brains in their very beginnings by not providing them with an adequate, stimulating, psychological environment. And I would not use the term ‘crippling’ in any metaphoric sense but in a palpable physical sense.* We must not assume that what psychological impoverishment does to the brains of young rats cannot have some effect on the brains of children.” *My italics.
Unfortunately, it took more than thirty years for the medical and education establishments to catch up with Doman and Krech.
The difficulty was that Doman couldn’t turn his children into rats, and Krech couldn’t turn his rats into children. Plasticity in human brains was very difficult to prove scientifically without actually doing a physical examination of the brain. There was a veritable mountain of empirical evidence in favor of plasticity in humans but it was all circumstantial evidence and therefore unconvincing to most medical scientists. The breakthrough came with the invention and later refinement of CAT, PET, and MRI scanning technology, which allows one to see the brain in great structural detail and to see it in action as it is performing its functions. Everything changed in 1997, when a group of neuroscientists convened in Washington, D.C. to present their research at a conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Their conclusion about the brain at the end of the conference was very simple. The brain grows through use! Scanning technology proved beyond any doubt that, as Doman and Krech suspected so long ago, neurological growth is a dynamic and constantly changing process.
Throughout this month, the focus of our posts is the development of the function of understanding. Recently, a study done with 4 to 6 year olds at MIT using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided elegant proof that talking to children, and particularly how we talk to them, grows the brain. Building on a previous study that measured the number of words children hear, this study focused on the number of times children were engaged in conversation. Using fMRI imaging, the research team was able to identify clear differences in the brain’s response to language and correlate those differences with the number of conversation opportunities the children had experienced with their parents. The children who experienced more conversations, who had not just input but engagement, had significantly more activity in Broca’s area, the part of the human cortex directly involved in language processing and speech production. According to John Gabrieli, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study, “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”
The importance of the biological reality of brain plasticity for all of us is incalculable because it means that functional ability can be created. It means that functional ability can be improved. It’s important because it represents hope for the future. It means that every child born has far more potential than anyone ever realized. It means that your child has far more potential than you realize!
At the start of this blog we said that raising a BrainFit Kid was a heck of a lot of fun and a lot easier than you might imagine. Now you have the first piece of the puzzle.
So, our hope is that you will begin your journey of Parenting with the Brain in Mind filled with the hope that brain plasticity offers. As Andy Dufresne said to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”