Brain Basics Workshop
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.
Study these 10 brain phenomenons...
And practice applying each one
1. Synaptic Connections
A newborn baby's brain has billions of neurons (brain cells) at birth, which is much more than adults end up with after natural pruning takes place throughout life. However, at birth only a small percentage of "survival" cells that keep the heart beating, the lungs working, and the digestive system running have actually formed connections with other neurons. The rest of your child's synaptic connections happen after birth and over the period of many, many years. You get to observe and even influence the phenomenon of brain connections and growth as you spend time with your child every day.
2. Cortisol and Homeostasis
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 starts curving in a negative direction 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 to help maintain homeostasis until the child is older--is invaluable for human potential.
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 substance so it can keep using it and build upon it...to 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. Neurogenesis and Synaptic Plasticity
The neurogenesis, or brain cell production, of over 100 billion cells primarily occurs in utero and for the first few months of life. Interestingly, most neurons are cells that don't divide or reproduce. Instead, these cells are made to last a lifetime and can steadily grow in size until about 18 years of age. One of the only regions of the brain that produces new cells throughout life is the hippocampus, which is linked to encoding and storing memories. If most areas of the brain do not create new cells throughout a person's life, how does new learning occur?
New learning occurs when neurons make synaptic connections, or pathways, with other neurons. Strong pathways become regular behaviors and weak pathways can eventually disconnect and lead to the pruning and disposal of the billions of neurons that a person will lose in a lifetime. An adult brain contains about 86 billion neurons that can be connected to over 10,000 other neurons via as many as 1000 trillion synaptic connections (see link below). This doesn't happen overnight. It takes time.
Because learning is a step by step process, or in other words it depends on perhaps thousands or millions or billions or even trillions of synaptic connections already in place, children learn best when their brains are given time and space to become primed for personal windows of opportunity. These windows of opportunity occur at various stages of a child or adolescent's life. Before windows open, new learning is pretty much impossible. Imagine a newborn learning to walk or talk. It's just not possible until the body is primed and ready, or in other words until the necessary neurons have had time to make strong synaptic connections in prep for the next step. When windows close (ie. pruning and myelination is through), learning, though still possible (see synaptic plasticity), is much more challenging . For example, the window for learning a new language by just soaking it in occurs before the massive pruning that takes place during the teenage years.
As a parent, beware of when expectations are not in line with open windows. Forced learning can lead a child towards defensiveness rather than progress.
Unused neurons eventually get in the way and therefore get pruned away to increase the brain's overall efficiency. Pruning happens throughout life. However, a major time of pruning occurs during teenage years as well as when older adults grow elderly. Daniel Siegel, a world renowned neuroscientist often says, "Use it or lose it" in reference to pruning. It's a good reminder that time must be spent wisely.
Important chemicals called neurotransmitters help brain cells connect with one another. Well-known neurotransmitter systems include dopamine (affecting cognition, motor system, motivation), 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 and the brain's sensitivity to these neurotransmitters in the brain, thus dramatically affecting a person's behavior.
In terms of parenting, it's important to remember that while you can't control your child's genetics, you can help maintain his environment. Your efforts to positively influence your child's diet, exercise, sleep, and coping habits will have significant impact on genetic expression and balance.
7. Mirror Neurons
To assist in learning, the brain contains mirror neurons, which are cells that are programmed to mirror another person's actions without intention or prior experience. Adults and children alike display many behaviors (good and bad) every day thanks to mirror neurons. Yawning when someone else yawns is a classic example. Children, however, are more prone than adults to freely mirroring the actions of those around them. Many behaviors are learned and many habits are formed by simply observing and instinctively following what is modeled in the child's environment. Thus the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree. And therefore you have a weighty responsibility as a parent to model an adult level of maturity if you want your child to instinctively know how to be mature when her adult brain eventually window opens.
8. Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)
The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) sits right behind the 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. The PFC is the CEO...or rather it 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. Though presently active in teenagers, the PFC undergoes a massive pruning process during the teen years and it therefore is not working at optimal capacity until adult years. Adults who struggle with brain imbalance are also in need of strengthening their PFC. Essentially, the PFC is the key to maturity and it's development should be at the forefront of your parenting practices. The Accountability Pyramid is intended to be a guide to help parents understand the long and natural progression of nurturing that the PFC needs in order to develop to it's fullest potential in each unique child.
9. Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC)
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. A person with an engaged PFC has the ability to receive an "emergency message" from the ACC and then make wise choices that feel peaceful and mature. However, 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 often finds solutions to stress or problems using whatever brain areas ARE mature enough and ready to respond. This results in quickly turning to whatever genetic tendencies, or strengths, dominate in a particular child. For example, if a child genetically leans towards movement or logic or talking or thinking deeply or pleasing others, those brain areas will get summoned as a self-defense during times of stress.
So, how does the ACC assist with PFC growth? It is somehow involved in detecting when a child is safe and can trust the environment enough to be open to learning. If the ACC detects lack of safety, the ACC is involved in triggering the flight, fight or freeze response that shuts down growth and it essentially just focused on momentary survival.
So, when a young child's ACC detects errors and it seeks to sort out the conflict to find a resolution, the child's PFC will Ideally, since a child doesn't have consistent use of her own PFC, a caregiver with a mature PFC will be present to mindfully guide a child through the resolution process. However, if a child needs to self-defend alone, the ACC will repeatedly call on the child to use her strengths to resolve the problem quickly. While this is helpful at times and even appears "grown-up" in some moments, repeated self-defense is NOT a wise solution. Self-defense uses the limbic area, or emotional circuits, of the brain and does not encourage positive PFC growth. In fact, the more the ACC has to call upon self-defense, or limbic areas to solve conflicts, the more the child's brain gets tricked into building up such a strong self-defense system that the PFC is supposed to come online more consistently beginning around age 8, the PFC can't override the self-defense mechanism and long-term brain imbalance can become a big challenge. 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.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone. It is associated with bonding and trust. When someone feels secure and happy, the heart pumps oxytocin throughout the body. This feels warm and tingly and signals the brain to make a positive memory of the moment. If oxytocin is present, the brain also lets down defensive walls and opens up the front gate for greater learning and prefrontal cortex development. Read more about how parents should actively create moments of oxytocin production here.