Brain Basics

A basic understanding of how the human brain matures seems necessary to survive in today's complicated world of parenting. Thankfully, science has uncovered a few things in recent years to give us a knowledge boost.

After pouring through books (and wikipedia)...here's my interpretation of a few key neuroscience points that help Brent and I in raising our children:

1. Even though a newborn has billions of neurons (brain cells) at birth [way more than adults end up with], very few cells (except for the survival ones that keep the heart beating, the lungs working, and the digestive system running) have actually formed connections with other neurons (synaptic connections) to add meaning to life. We get to observe and influence these eternally important connections as we spend time with them every day.

2. As a baby grows, genetically pre-programmed neurons are prepared to (a) learn from the environment and (b) automatically defend the innocent child against the natural stresses in this world, constantly attempting to bring the human body back to a comfortable, livable state (homeostasis). In most cases, "b" trumps "a". The stress hormone, cortisol (scroll down to the "Effects" section on wiki), helps the body regain homeostasis by triggering various coping methods, but excessive amounts inhibit learning and are linked to all sorts of neurological problems. A secure environment is invaluable for human potential.

3. Over time and with repetitive experience, neurons that consistently fire together will become rapid responses (myelination and in many cases automatic. Witnessing a child go from taking the first wobbly steps to cruising around the house is watching myelination in the motor area of the brain take place before your very eyes. New learning takes time and practice and patience (and more patience).

4. Unused neurons eventually get in the way and therefore get pruned away to increase the brain's overall efficiency. Time must be spent wisely.

5. Neurogenesis, or brain cell production, happens throughout life, but occurs most dramatically during growth spurts or "windows of opportunity" at various stages of a child/adolescent's life. Before windows open, new learning is pretty much impossible (imagine a newborn learning to walk or talk). When windows close (ie. pruning and myelination is through), learning, though still possible (see synaptic plasticity), is much more challenging (which is why learning a new language, for example, is best started before the massive pruning that takes place during the teenage years). Being in tune to my child helps me know when the windows are opening...and closing.

6. Important chemicals (neurotransmitters help brain cells connect with one another. Well-known neurotransmitter systems include dopamine (affecting cognition, motor system, reward feeling), serotonin (affecting sleep, mood, appetite), noradrenaline (affecting arousal and reward), and cholinergic (affecting learning, short-term memory, arousal and reward). Diet, exercise, sleep, and stress dramatically affect the amount of these neurotransmitters in the brain, thus dramatically affecting a person's behavior.

7. To assist in learning, the brain contains mirror neurons, cells that are programmed to mirror another person's actions, without intention or prior experience. Adults and children alike display lots of behaviors (good and bad) every day thanks to mirror neurons. The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree. Insightful. Motivating.

8. The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) sits right behind your forehead. It takes the longest to develop (well into the 20s and 30s) and it is the last part of the brain to settle into its routines. Your PFC is your CEO...or should be. The PFC enables moral judgment, conscious decisions and choices, insight and empathy, and the regulation of emotions (pretty much all the behaviors that make people pleasant to be around). The PFC can override and/or balance out the natural impulses the rest of the brain fires off in response to the environment and past experiences. It is naturally very underdeveloped in children (and teenagers...and many adults). It is the key to maturity.

9. Meditation, moral decisions, and meaningful connections with another human being soften the heart and strengthen the pre-frontal cortex to help the brain regain a natural balance in times of distress and rejuvenate the body.

Here are some of myblog posts that reference practical application of these sophisticated scientific discoveries:

A Happy Nerd Year
Amazing Baby Brains

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