“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
In our first blog post about the science of brain development, we established that the brain grows through use. You will remember that, just like with muscles, it does so because it is subject to a very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure.
When we say that the brain grows through use, we are saying that its physical structure actually changes in the form of new neurons, new dendrites, new synapses, and… new, critically important, myelin.
Myelin is a substance produced in the brain that is composed primarily of omega-3 fatty acids. Ever wonder why everything from Corn Flakes to milk to eggs are now marketed as “enriched with omega-3 fatty acids”?
Well, now you know. It’s because science has proven that omega-3 fatty acids are important for your heart and your brain. That’s right, fat (the right kind of fat) is good for the heart and the brain. Indeed, not only is fat good for your heart and brain, it’s essential! Oh, and you don’t actually need to buy foods “enriched” with omega-3’s in order to get what you need… but that’s another story.
Myelin is critically important because it serves as a conductor of electrical impulses. Neurons connect to each other via a structure called the axon. Myelin covers the axon of each neuron in layers. You can see it in the drawing below labeled as the myelin sheath. Every time a neural circuit is fired, more myelin wraps around the axon on that circuit. The more myelin you have the faster information can travel from one neuron to the next.
Think of it this way, myelin does for your brain what the fiber-optic cable did for your internet connection. Back in the old days of dial-up modem connection, the internet was accessible but the connection was unreliable. It took time to connect, often the connection would drop, and even when there was a good connection it took a long time to transfer a small amount of data. That all changed with the fiber-optic cable. The connection became reliable, fast, and huge files of data could be sent at lightning speed.
Broadband internet allows a quantum leap in the efficiency of the internet communication system. The same thing happens in the brain when there is plenty of myelin. It creates a neurological superhighway built for speed.
Knowing that myelin is so important, the next logical question might be what is the best way to help the production of myelin? Indeed, what is the best way to grow the brain?
The answer lies in the second law that governs brain development, a basic law of neurology that says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
One more time… in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
First, let’s break that down and translate it into easy to understand concepts.
- Increase the transmission of nerve impulses – This simply means accelerating the speed with which a message is sent and arrives at its destination.
- Across the central nervous system – This is another term for the brain. The human nervous system is divided into two parts, the central nervous system or brain; and the peripheral nervous system or the entire network of nerves outside of the brain that convey information into and out of the brain via the spinal cord.
- Increase the stimulus – This means all sensory/environmental input that reaches the brain via the peripheral nervous system. This input is in the form of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Which is to say the things we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.
- Frequency – How often the stimulus is sent.
- Intensity – How bright, large, colorful, loud, strong, etc., the stimulus is.
- Duration – How long, in terms of time, the stimulus lasts.
Again, the second law of brain development says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration. Yep, you’re right… that’s frequency!
Here’s how it works. Remember that all information coming into the brain does so in the form of electrical energy. In order for a message to register in the brain, its electrical energy must reach a certain threshold, known as the action potential. Without getting too complicated, the action potential is part of the process that occurs during the firing of a neuron. Either the threshold necessary for firing the neuron (the action potential) is reached or it is not. This is known as the all or none law. We can ensure that the threshold is reached by paying attention to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus.
We apply the second law of brain development in a number of ways. As a general rule, when the brain is immature (either because the child is young or the brain has been injured and is therefore not developed) we place more importance on the frequency and intensity of an activity, and the duration is kept short. As the brain matures we shift the emphasis and, over time, the frequency and intensity will decrease as the duration increases. Specifically, with regard to duration, imagine reading a book to a six month old versus a four year old. The six month old will listen attentively for a short while but soon enough she is interested in other things. Whereas, the four year old will sit for the entire book and then ask you to read it again, or read another, and then another, and then… you get the idea!
We use this principle every day in our work with children and young adults who have developmental and functional difficulties due to brain-injury or poor brain development. When brain function is compromised by injury there is a barrier of sorts that forms between the brain and the environment thus making it much more difficult to reach the threshold necessary for triggering the action potential to fire neurons. For this reason, the normal amounts of stimulation (which are quite adequate to develop a well functioning brain) are entirely inadequate for developing the injured brain. If this were not so then the problems of children who struggle would be solved very easily.
However, by applying this basic law of brain development carefully, we can accelerate development in the brain, often enabling the child to overcome the effects of their original injury or poor development and develop functions that previously were impossible. This is one of the reasons that there is always hope for children who have difficulties in development. The possibility of growth is built into the system!
For the child who has an intact, well functioning brain, application of the second law of brain development simply guarantees that the brain will grow as it should. As the child grows and develops it provides the basic framework for the development of all ability. Author Dan Coyle writes eloquently about this in his excellent book, The Talent Code, where he looks at the development of talent in a variety of endeavors, everything from sports, to music, to writing ability. His conclusion is that the bottom line for the development of any talent is brain development.
My wife is from Brazil so I particularly like Coyle’s examination of the reasons behind the astounding proliferation of talented soccer players from Brazil. Essentially it boils down to how Brazilians introduce the sport to children when they are young, the effect this has on the development of their young brains, and the level of skill they develop as a result.
Brazilian children never actually play on a real soccer field until they are in their early teens. When they are learning the game they play in a much more confined space, often indoors. It’s a game the Brazilians call futsal, which is short for futebol de salão (indoor soccer).
Learning to play the game in a confined space has several very important results. First, because the space is confined, the number of players is reduced from eleven to five. That means that each player gets the opportunity to handle the ball far more often. In other words, with increased frequency! That’s a surefire way to develop better skill. Second, because the space is confined the ball moves between players much faster and much more often. In other words, with increased intensity! A great way to develop the ability to control the ball and pass it under pressure. Third, because there are unlimited substitutions allowed, each player plays for a shorter duration of time which is more appropriate for their age and level of neurological development. All of this adds up to the development of a lot of soccer players of extraordinary talent.
Neymar Jr., one of the current group of Brazilian greats had this to say about futsal, “Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces. I think futsal is a fundamental part of a footballer’s life.”
Does this mean that every child who plays futsal grows up to be a soccer superstar? Not at all. There is a difference between having talent and having superstar talent. And that is where things like passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching, etc. come into play. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. We’re happy to let them decide where that leads them!
One last thing. Now that you’ve focused your attention on this science stuff for a while, give yourself a break and enjoy watching this video of Neymar Jr.. It covers his career from the time he was a kid playing futsal to his present day professional career playing for the best soccer clubs of Europe and as the captain of the Brazilian national team. It’s a beautiful illustration of how that talent developed in childhood combined with all of those intangible ingredients (passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching) can produce poetry in motion on the soccer field.
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.”