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)'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. After birth and over the period of many many years, we get to observe and even influence the phenomenon of brain connections and growth as we spend time with our child every day.

2. As a baby grows, genetically pre-programmed neurons are prepared to (a) soak in the environment and learn from it and (b) automatically defend the innocent child so it has a greater chance at survival. These two neurological intentions are constantly working together to achieve a comfortable, livable state called homeostasis. However, if the environment yields an overwhelming amount of stress, brain development is stunted because excessive stress hormone cortisol (scroll down to the "Effects" section on wiki) demands homeostasis by triggering various coping methods that can then inhibit learning and are linked to all sorts of neurological problems. Therefore, a secure environment (one with a mature brain watching over and guiding the growth of an immature one) is invaluable for human potential.

3. Over time and with repetitive experience, neurons that consistently fire together will become rapid responses through a process called myelination. Once the brain notices what works best (think of an infant slowly recognizing how to control flailing limbs in order to grab a toy), a fatty substance insulates and somewhat "seals" the synaptic connection so the brain pathways can work faster and become more 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. During the beginning learning stages, the child's brain must slowly process each movement and discover where and how balancing points feel. Little toes learn to grip the floor as the child wobbles and tumbles again and again. But over time and with repetition the brain notices how to not lean too far forward or too far back all while trying to move it's own weight to get to a desired location. And then the brain stores this "aha" moment into long-term memory and seals it with a fatty acid so it can keep using it and build upon then learn to run and jump and climb. Therefore most learning is a multi-step process that takes time and practice and lots of 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. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) sits between the emotional region of the brain and the PFC. It is responsible for paying attention to conflicting information and sorting it out for personal benefit. It detects errors and sends messages that problems need to be fixed. Without a relatively "online" PFC (like during the first 8 years of life or during times of high levels of stress when cortisol blocks the PFC from functioning properly), the ACC finds solutions to stress or problems using whatever brain areas ARE mature enough and ready to respond. This often results in quickly turning to whatever genetic tendencies, or strengths, dominate in a particular child. In other words, when the ACC notices that cortisol is running through the brain, it seeks to sort out the conflict and find a resolution and will repeatedly call on the child to use his/her strengths to resolve the problem. While this is helpful in the moment and seems like a wise solution, it is NOT a PFC solution and therefore can cause long-term brain imbalance. For example, a child who loves movement or logic or talking or quietly thinking and therefore uses THAT strength as a coping method (without the help of a mature PFC because he/she doesn't have a mature PFC yet) will create patterns of over-using strengths in an out-of-control sort of way. Many behavioral disorders are linked to this phenomenon. Practicing Present Parenting does not change a child's genetic personality, but it does assist in helping the child grow a mature PFC, which preserves his/her strengths and finds an ongoing balance to ensure strengths don't become weaknesses.     

10. Meditation, moral decisions, and meaningful connections with other human beings are also keys to brain balance. Each of these conscious practices soften the heart, which in turn strengthens the pre-frontal cortex to help it do it's job of regaining a natural balance in times of distress and rejuvenating the body in preparation for future stress.

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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