Showing posts with tag infant brain Show all posts >
We generally don’t consider the development of manual dexterity like hand-eye coordination in babies to be an essential element of cognitive development. In fact, the scientific terminology itself – “motor skills” for movement and “cognitive skills” for mental processing – draws a clear and definite separation between these two types of functions.
As it turns out, such thinking may be holding us back from innovations in education that might truly be able to make a difference for a great many young learners.
Recent research has demonstrated a clear connection between the development of fine motor skills in early life and later success in math, science and reading. Such skills – those as simple as how an infant can use her eyes to track her mother’s face and then reach her hand out and touch her mother’s nose – may just help us understand how ready that child will be for kindergarten, as well as what kind of achiever she’ll be over the next few years.
The Motor-Cognition Connection
To arrive at such a conclusion, we first need to understand the connection between the motor and cognitive centers of the brain. Through neuroimaging and neuroanatomical analysis, Adele Diamond (2000) uncovered “significant evidence” for a number of motor-cognition links in the brain. Prior to such analysis, these abilities were attributed to separate areas of the brain: motor skills were centered in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, and cognition in the prefrontal cortex. But Diamond’s research showed that both could be activated during certain motor or cognitive tasks. Further research also showed that “individuals with brain damage to either the primary motor or primary cognitive areas often show impairment in both skill areas.” (p. 1013)
In fact, Karen Adolph (2005, 2008; Adolph & Berger, 2006) suggested that a complex relationship exists between cognitive and motor skills development in infants. Since infants are learning to process a complex and changing world at the same time that they are learning gross and fine motor skills, they are in a state of constant adaptation. Their bodies are changing simultaneously as the world around them is presenting new information. Thus, their physical existence in the world – and their movement through it – is one that requires constant cognitive problem solving. In short, infants spend the vast majority of their existence, when they are not sleeping, learning how to learn.
Motor Skills as a Predictor
Talk about factors that predict future achievement in reading, math and science most often includes discussions of early math skills, early reading skills, social skills, attention skills, and attention-related measures like curiosity, interest and a desire to learn. Note that none of the aforementioned abilities has a motor physical component.
Yet, from the motor-cognition connection, researchers like David Grissmer, Sophie Aiyer, William Murrah, Kevin Grimm and Joel Steele (2010) have brought the issue of motor skills development to the fore. They went back and analyzed data from six data sets, and found that, indeed, fine motor skills were a strong predictor of later achievement. In fact, they conclude that taken together, “attention, fine motor skills and general knowledge are much stronger overall predictors of later math, reading and science scores than early math and reading scores alone.” (p. 1008)
Toward Better Interventions
According to this team of researchers (Grissimer, et al, 2010), “There are few interventions directly testing whether strengthening early attention, fine motor skills, or knowledge of the world would improve later math and reading achievement.” That said, some facts are quite clear:
Ultimately, with that understanding in hand, we clearly have a research opportunity to more comprehensively pursue an understanding of these connections. Findings from such research could put us in a position to create more novel, more effective interventions that strategically integrate motor and cognitive skill building, and continue to hone how we help our youngest learners prepare for future success.
For further reading:
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K., Aiyer S., Murrah, W., Steele, J. Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators. Developmental Psychology. 2010. Vol. 46, No. 5. 1008-1017.
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What is a parent to do to get a child’s brain started out on the right path – to be able to concentrate on one task for extended periods, be able to handle rapidly changing information, and be flexible enough to switch tasks easily?
Well, it turns out the human brain seems to have a strategy: by developing two core capacities during the first few years of life, interactive play and language, the brain seems to become uniquely equipped to build a range of cognitive capacities. Recent research suggests that a specific area in the frontal lobe – ‘the doing part of the brain’ - begins to wire itself very early in development through imitation of the movements and sounds made by others. This area, the so-called mirror neuron region, allows an infant to watch or listen to other people and respond with imitative or complementary movements or sounds.
Because this area is the same region, in the left hemisphere, that is responsible for fluent, easy articulated, speech, researchers have speculated that it might have been an evolutionary starting point for development of human language. But, because it is also active in the right hemisphere, it seems to play an important role in social, and perhaps athletic, interaction. In fact, Miella Dapretto and her colleagues at UCLA recently reported research showing that children with autism spectrum disorders, which include a range of disturbances that impact, among other things, social skill development, have observable deficiencies in the mirror neuron system.
There is reason to speculate, based on the research now available, that exercising the mirror system in general, can build a brain that is better equipped for socialization, school, music and athletics. At this time existing research has demonstrated that exercising Broca’s area of the brain (and other areas that are connected to this area through complex cognitive networks), either through natural parental stimulation in infants or through intense specific practice in school-aged children or adults, one can systematically build a brain that is better equipped for many cognitive tasks including language, reading, writing, and math as well as remediate a brain that seems to have deficits or learning disabilities in one or more of these areas.
Every time a parent plays a game like “Patty-cake, Patty-cake” where the child and parent duplicate a routine with actions and a poem or song, the parent is helping the child to exercise the mirror neuron system. Parents have been doing these action/nursery sequences for years, and there are many similar routines in many cultures. Examples of “mirror neuron” routines that have been around and passed on for generations in Western cultures include – “So Big!” where a parent ask the child something like, “How big are you?” and the child and parent respond together holding up their arms in like fashion, “SO BIG!” or, with older children, “Eensie Weensie Spider” where parent and child imitate each other by alternately touching the thumb of one hand to the forefinger of the other hand to emulate the spider climbing up a water spout.
The wonderful thing about these types of routines is that they illustrate how intuitive parents have been for centuries, at identifying and exploiting the natural directions and priorities of brain development. What worries many of us in neuroscience is when parents abandon these time-tested and intuitive interactions with our young children, swayed by technological advances that enhance productivity and drive positive cognitive changes in a mature brain but by abandoning natural parental interactive routines may actually jeopardize the delicate balance of stimulation in the developing brain.
We must exercise caution when adults develop products that appeal to parents with names that inspire confidence like, “Baby Einstein”, if the products have not been subjected to reasonable controlled studies that will help us understand the impact of these activities on young brains. Most companies that develop products for young children do not conduct this type of research because the assumption is that toys and play activities that engage infants and keep them entertained are not harmful. But, unfortunately, that assumption is not warranted. Many of us who put our children in “walkers” or “swings” in the latter part of the twentieth century learned that these “toys” had unintended consequences (i.e., negative effects, on early motor development).
As developmental neuroscientists and other specialists have begun to understand the implications, both positive and negative, of early stimulation on later brain development, those of us in the sciences need to better inform parents and “toy” makers may need to attempt more accountable to parents. In all fairness, however, it may be unreasonable to expect toy makers to conduct independent controlled research studies that we have not even demanded of drug companies. So, the view held by many scientists is that an educated parent can look beyond the hype of advertising and provide for the young child in their care, a fostering environment that is calmly yet convincingly brain-enhancing.
For Further Reading:
The Mirror Neuron System and the Consequences of Its Dysfunction. Marco Iacoboni and Mirella Depretto. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience Volume 7, December 2006
The Mirror Neuron System is More Active During Complementary Compared with Imitative Action. Roger Newman-Norlund, Hein T van Schie, Alexander M J van Zuijlen, and Harold Bekkering. Nature Neuroscience Vol. 10, May 2007
Using Human Brain Lesions to Infer Function: A Relic from a Past Era in the fMRI age? Chris Rorden and Hans-Otto Karnath. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience Vol. 5, October 2004
Understanding Emotions in Others: Mirror Neuron Dysfunction in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Mirella Depretto, Mari S. Davies, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, Ashley A. Scott, Marian Sigman, Susan Y. Bookheimer, and Marco Iacoboni. Nature Neuroscience Vol. 9, December 2005
Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Daniel Goleman. NY, NY: Bantam Books, 2006.
Neural Plasticity: The Effects of Environment on the Development of the Cerebral Cortex (Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience). Peter R. Huttenlocher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002
Neural Mechanisms of Selective Auditory Attention are Enhanced by Computerized Training: Electrophysiological Evidence from Language-Impaired and Typically Developing Children. Courtney Stevens, Jessica Fanning, Donna Coch, Lisa Sanders,and Helen Neville. Brain Research Vol. 1205, April 2008.
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The brain is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood organs in the body. It represents the seat of our judgment, our senses, perceptions and our creativity. More than any other aspect of our anatomy, the uniqueness of our brains is at the core of what makes us truly human.
While neuroscience advances every day, there are a number of myths about the brain that are accepted by many people as fact. As a scientist, I and my colleagues have worked to uncover the brain’s truths. So what are some of these myths – and what are the true stories behind them to the best of our scientific knowledge?
Fiction: We use only a small percentage of our brains.
Fact: General thinking is that we use only about 10% of our brains. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brain scans such as MRI and PET scans show that we regularly use all parts of our brains. Certainly, different areas of the brain are activated during different types of tasks, and some parts of the brain are less critical to support vital functions than others. But as even small brain injuries can show, every part of the brain performs essential functions in how we process, communicate with, and move through the world around us. Read more at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-we-really-use-only-10.
Fiction: The wrinkles on the surface of the brain appear and become more pronounced as we learn.
Fact: The ridges and crannies – more correctly, the gyri and sulci – on the surface of the brain actually all appear by the time a fetus is 40 weeks old. As the human brain evolved, gyri and sulci appeared as a result of the brain having to fold in upon itself as it grew larger to fit inside a correctly proportioned skull. While the gyri and sulci do not change as we learn, the brain itself – as we know from research in brain plasticity -- does continue to change throughout our lives.
Fiction: Brain damage is permanent.
This is an interesting myth, in that it is the result of ambiguous language. The brain is made up of a collection of neurons – brain cells – that are all networked together. When the brain suffers trauma and neurons are destroyed or damaged, those neurons cannot regenerate. In that sense, the damage to them is permanent. That said, those neurons are linked together at synapses to form complete networks. While a single neuron cannot be repaired, the pathways and connections throughout the brain can rewire themselves and form new pathways. If a connection is lost due to injury, we can reestablish that connection if the damage is not so acute that the entire network cannot be rewired. For a scholarly treatment of how the brain recovers from injury, see http://web.uvic.ca/~skelton/Teaching/General%20Readings/Robertson%20Murre%201999.pdf.
Fiction: A person is either “left-brained” or “right-brained.”
The theory goes that left-brained people are more logical and right-brained people are more creative. Certainly there are asymmetries associated with locations of certain brain functions. For example, mathematical computation and the grammar and vocabulary aspects of language seem to be controlled in most people in the left brain, while numerical approximation and comparison, along with interpretive aspects of language like prosody and intonation, appear to be controlled in the right. These ideas date back to original research done in 1861 by French physician Pierre Paul Broca. Today, through MRI and PET imaging techniques, we have a much more complex view of the way the brain’s hemispheres control functions and interact with one another. The two perform a complex dance of information exchange that gives rise to our abilities. For a look at results of some of these MRI tests in children, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8780075.
Fiction: There are five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.
These five are simply the ones that we are most aware of in our conscious minds, but we perceive and sense the world in a great many other ways. For example, “proprioconception” describes how our bodies are oriented in the world. “Nociception” is how we perceive pain. We sense changes in temperature. We sense balance. We feel thirst and hunger. We sense the passage of time. For a quick and easy description of the senses – in humans as well as other species – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense.
As scientists continue our search for the facts, there is much we don’t know; we are expanding our knowledge of the brain’s truths every day. As new discoveries are made, it is natural for facts to become distorted and reinterpreted with each new telling. As educators and scientists, we should take the time to explain the truths about the brain and rectify any misunderstandings we may hear others repeat. The brain is amazing, and communicating the truths about it will further society’s understanding as a whole.
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What factors will ultimately determine a child’s ability to succeed in life? While measures like socioeconomic status might allow a child to start off on the right foot, current research is delving into the nature of temperament and how that affects a person’s ability to successfully navigate life’s many challenges. If temperament is pre-determined, there’s not much a parent can do, but if nurture plays a role, then how can parents help their child have the best quality of life?
While temperament has long been thought of as something innate, recent research has demonstrated that only some aspects are genetic, while others are environmental.
On the genetic side, as any parent will agree, much of an individual’s personality manifests very early on in the infant’s life. Parents with more than one child often note that one of their children seems easygoing from day one, but another child is demanding. One child may be outgoing and social, while their sibling may be more shy or withdrawn.
As we consider how these seemingly innate traits develop, we cannot ignore the fact that the environment – from parental attention to nutrition – exerts a strong influence on a child’s personality development. Current research tells us that a pregnant mother’s iron levels can affect the disposition of her child. Emerging data gleaned from animal research indicates that the quality of maternal parenting styles, such as the way a mother nurses her infants or the amount of maternal grooming, affects the temperament of her offspring.
An interesting question arises: How do these early manifestations play out as the child matures? For example, will an infant who is able to self-calm herself in stressful situations by turning away from aversive stimuli or sucking her thumb, for example, continue to exhibit self-regulatory behaviors as she gets older?
Considering the interplay between innate versus cultivated aspects of temperament, what actions can a parent take to affect the development of a child’s personality to give that child the best chance at personal satisfaction, academic achievement and successful relationships later in life? As the above research – and our own parental gut instincts – suggest, we can set them up by providing:
With parents providing these positive factors for their children, every child – from shy to outgoing, from tense to easygoing – will have the best chance at developing a balanced temperament as they mature.
For further study, read: Child Temperament and Parenting, by Samuel Putnam (University of Oregon), Ann Sanson (University of Melbourne), Mary Rothbart (University of Oregon).
Feder, A; Nestler, EJ; Charney, DS. Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10 (2009) 446 – 457
In the 1980’s, brain researchers viewed the two sides of the brain as dichotomously opposed: the right hemisphere was seen as a gestalt processor, good at “seeing the big picture,” while the left hemisphere was attributed with detail processing skills. Other views at that time attributed the left hemisphere with being more logical and analytical while the right hemisphere was considered more intuitive.[i]
Some went so far as asserting that men and women exhibited different right vs. left preferences: men were attributed with stronger left hemisphere skills and women better right hemisphere skills. Although this male-female distinction was never empirically verified through research, the somewhat “pop-psychology” view that the right hemisphere is important for skills like music and art, predominated. In fact, there were books written instructing individuals on how to “draw with the right hemisphere” or how to “teach to the right hemisphere”.[ii]
It now appears that some of these notions need to be revised. A current view is that, for the majority of us, the right hemisphere is a pattern recognizer that may develop before the left. From this perspective, the right hemisphere enables a child to attend to and appreciate the gist of a sensory experience within each cognitive domain. For example, in acquisition of mathematical concepts, the right hemisphere may enable a young child to appreciate quantities in terms of more vs. less prior to assigning numerical values to the quantities (which would involve left hemisphere skills). There is research demonstrating that babies can discern a group of dots in terms of general aspects of quantity.[iii]
Patricia Kuhl at University of Washington in Seattle has shown that typically developing infants show an interest in human voices over other environmental sounds like a car horn or doorbell, and direct their attention to human voice when it conveys information that is interesting.[iv] Ultimately this may lead to an understanding of how the melody of a voice is used to convey a person’s intent. In other words, recent research suggests that the right hemisphere may be best at processing patterns like voice contour, facial expression, aspects of size and quantity, gestalt aspects of the world which, from a developmental perspective, represent the way children begin to learn about cognitive areas like music, art, mathematics or language.
Considering the cognitive domain of music, for example, the right hemisphere appears to have a fundamental preference for recognizing melody, which allows a young infant to be interested in and ultimately reproduce early nursery songs. In the realm of visual processing, the right hemisphere has been shown to be better at perceiving the form or outline of an object than the details contained within the object.[v]. And, similarly, although many people regard the left hemisphere as dominant for language, newer research has shown that the right hemisphere is superior at processing information like vocal inflection (prosody), and perhaps going directly from word to meaning, especially in very familiar phrases like idiomatic expressions (eg., “it is raining cats and dogs”) while the left hemisphere is more important for processing aspects of language that depend on analyzing the specific sequence of the sounds and words which are essential for understanding grammatical form of language and perceiving internal details of words.[vi]
Several neuroscientists have accordingly revised and expanded the early right-left dichotomy to see the right hemisphere as preferential in processing form, structure, and perhaps, direct links to emotion,[vii] while the left hemisphere handles complex, rapidly changing stimuli, in which discerning the specific sequential order is critical to perception (as in speech perception, for example, where one must discern and order very rapidly changing complex acoustic events very quickly.)[viii]
Another revision to the older view of right versus left hemisphere complements the view that the right hemisphere is preferential for pattern analysis, and comes from developmental neuroscience which has reported research that supports the contention that for most cognitive skills the right hemisphere matures before the left.[ix] This certainly seems to the case when one looks at the early stages of neuronal development and migration in the fetal brain,[x] and also the building of early axonal superhighways, as well as the research on myelination.[xi] In fact, it may be that when this typical right to left maturation does not occur, developmental neurological abnormalities result. For example, there is some early research evidence that Autism Spectrum Disorders may represent one example of developmental deviations in this typical right-to-left developmental hierarchy.[xii]
Although it may seem somewhat of a stretch from the early research in this area, one can observe how this organization might be reflected in early childhood development in the stages children pass through in the gradual mastery of skills. For example, when a child first begins to enjoy music, the observant adult notices that the child moves his or her whole body to the musical rhythm. For nursery songs, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” the child often begins by humming the melodies. In both cases, this may represent right hemisphere processing.
In most cases, it will be a few years before the child will be able to read musical symbols which would presumably involve more left hemisphere skill. We do have research that shows that when three month old babies are first listening to oral language, the right hemisphere is much more active than the left.[xiii] Patricia Kuhl has shown that mothers instinctively seem to match their speech to babies’ early developing perceptual preferences by exaggerating melodic inflection with young babies, probably reflecting their intuitive knowledge that they need to exaggerate the language cues (intonational contour and vocal inflection) that the right hemisphere seems to process preferentially while deemphasizing the production of the speech sounds themselves (left hemisphere preferences).[xiv]
[i] Deutsch, Georg and Sally P. Springer. Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives From Cognitive Neuroscience . W.H. Feeman and Company/Worth Publishers. 2001.
[ii] Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Penguin Putnam Press. 1999.
[iii] Xu, Fei et al. (2005) Number sense in human infants. Developmental Science. Vol. 8. 2005.
[iv] Kuhl, Patricia. Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Vol 5. 2005.
[v] Devinsky, Orrin and Mark D’Esposito. Neurology of Cognitive and Behavioral Disorders. Oxford University Press. 2004.
[vi] Hickok, Gregory and David Poeppel. The Cortical Organization of Speech Processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2007.
[vii]Cahill, L. et al. Sex-Related Hemispheric Lateralization of Amygdala Function in Emotionally Influenced Memory: An fMRI Investigation. Learning and Memory. Vol. 11: 261-266. 2004
[viii] Tallal, Paula. Improving Language and Liteacy is a Matter of Time. Nature Reviews Neuroscience Vol. 5. 2004.
[ix] Huttenlocher, Peter. Morphometric Study of Human Cerebral Cortex Development. Neuropsychologia. Vol. 28. 1990.
[x] Galaburda, Albert et al. From Genes to Behavior in Developmental Dyslexia. Nature Neuroscience Vol 9. 2006.
[xi] Herbert, Martha et al. Brain Asymmetries in Autism and Developmental Language Disorder: A Nested Whole-Brain Analysis. Brain: A Journal of Neurology.2004.
[xii] Herbert, Martha et al. Ibid.
[xiii] Hickock, Gregory and David Poeppel. Ibid.
[xiv] Kuhl, Patricia. Ibid.
Over the years, many people have speculated about the advantages and disadvantages of exposing an infant to a second language. On one hand, it sounds great to think that children could be proficient in two languages by the time they go to school but, on the other hand, there is the concern that adding a second language could cause confusion and even delay language development in very young children.
Fortunately, Janet Werker, a psychologist at Vancouver's University of British Columbia, and her colleagues discovered that learning two languages simultaneously does not cause confusion and, in fact, can give young children cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers. It now appears that bilingual children develop enhanced visual sensitivity to language as well as the auditory sensitivity that we would expect.
Most people in other countries speak multiple languages and researchers have not found real evidence of language confusion in children who learn more than one language at a time. Of course, infants and toddlers who grow up in bilingual homes often will mix the two languages and that ‘mixing’ even has a name: code-switching. By the time these babies are three years of age, they will move back and forth between the languages but they also naturally learn to follow rules that govern that movement. For example, if one parent is not bilingual, they stick to the dominant language for that parent but will code-switch with the bilingual parent.
The study[i] also tested visual-language discrimination with four, six and eight month-olds and found that at the two earlier ages, infants can distinguish between two spoken languages when looking at a video of a person speaking with the sound muted, even if they are only familiar with one of the languages. By eight months of age, the babies’ brains can even discriminate between two unfamiliar languages simply by watching someone speak. Further studies will determine how long this ability is maintained in childhood but it does appear that there is a lasting influence from early exposure to additional languages.
Research also indicates that babies growing up in a bilingual environment are better able to attend to perceptual cues such as a change in voice tone or facial expression, in both languages and can apply this ability to distinguish things in the world as well. Additional research [ii] suggests that bilingual children also could have more flexibility in learning.
So, if you speak two languages fluently, share them with your babies from day one. Expanding infancy with a second language could provide stronger cognitive skills, more perceptive social skills and better learning in general. Don’t worry about videos, flash cards or other fancy options for teaching babies a second language - just talk and read together!
[i] Moskowitz, Clara. What Bilingual Babies Reveal About the Brain: Q&A with Psychologist Janet Werker. March 01, 2011.
In my August post, I discussed how the primary job of the infant brain is to detect relevant information about language and the environment in which the baby is born and to design itself, in a relatively short period of time, to be an expert at that language and environment. This month, we will continue the discussion of how the brain develops in a young infant.
The genes more or less provide the blueprint for the brain’s hardware and early wiring, but after a child is born, and perhaps even for several months before, the stimulation in the world around the infant sets up the experiences that the brain uses to wire itself for later learning. Whether that stimulation is beneficial or detrimental is a matter of expectations: if our goal is that a child be good at attending to brief segments of information (so called, “sound bites”) but not be as good at sustaining attention for a longer period of time (as might be expected in a first grade classroom), then hours of watching television might be viewed as beneficial. But since teachers do not talk in “sound bites,” and most education, from learning to read to learning algebra, requires extended periods of concentration to relatively unchanging stimulation (a teacher’s lengthy explanations, for example), television watching may prepare the brain for attentional skills that are not beneficial for school success.
Parents can help their babies and young children prepare for the “listening” demands of school by spending time in activities where Mom or Dad talk, read or sing to their child in a quiet setting for fifteen minutes to half an hour (for children over three) at a time. Even infants under six months of age can be encouraged to “listen” to adults. Young infants are very interested in facial expression and voice melody but they need to see a parent’s face and hear their voice together to build up the brain networks that sustain their attention to speech. Mom or Dad can build this network by holding the baby within a foot of their face (lying on a parent’s lap or being held close a parent can talk to the baby about parts of his face for example, “You have such a nice nose, here is your nose, look at Mommy’s nose; and here is your ear and this is Mommy’s ear.” As the baby gets older and can sit up, Dad and Mom can begin to pay games that further attract the baby’s attention to their voice and face, like “Peek-a-Boo.” Babies under a year often enjoy these activities and can attend for several minutes at a time, preparing their brain for later attention to speech.
For children over a year, parents can establish a routine “quiet time” to settle a child down before bedtime. A fifteen minute to half-hour quiet time where Mom or Dad sit with the child on their bed and look at books together, or talk about something special that happened during the day, or sing nursery songs before bed can provide a perfect opportunity build listening skills. If a child gets accustomed to sitting for 30 minutes listening to songs or stories he will have he will have established the attention skills that he will need when he gets to school.
As a case in point, the American Pediatric Association has recently published research indicating that too much exposure to television during the first two years of life seems to increase the likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in the early school years.1 From a neuroscientists’ perspective, attention deficit disorder may not represent so much an abnormal brain as a brain that has developed in a way that is not well suited to sitting and learning in a classroom environment.
That does not necessarily imply the child is not “intelligent” (although parents may be led to view the child that way) or that the child is not “well behaved’, but it does bias the child against being viewed as intelligent and well behaved in an environment that places emphasis on “sitting still and listening”, namely the typical public school classroom. And although one option might be for parents to remove the child with a “short attention span” from the public school environment and either home school the child or pay for a private school that is not as overtly punitive, ultimately, the child will most likely eventually have to sit and concentrate for long periods of time, either at college, or at work. So, it would make sense to build the child’s brain in such a way to allow him or her to successfully compete in a world where listening or watching and concentration to one task are important.
That does not mean, however, that the brain is inflexible, unable to multitask, or incapable of handling rapidly changing information as well. Think of a professional basketball player, who has developed a genius of sorts for a sport, who must maintain concentration on his or her team position as well as an expected play while at the same time following the ball and observing opponents and team members as they move around the floor. So, it turns out, a brain that is good at sustained attention to a single task can also be good at multitasking as well as handling rapidly changing information.
The human brain appears to be remarkably equipped to develop these capacities and to utilize them in almost all aspects of learning in which one might find himself, be it a classroom, a sports arena, a symphony orchestra, or a multitude of other performance.2 The key is preparing the brain for these potential capacities during the first few years of life.
Journal of the American Pediatric Association, 2007
 Merzenich, M. Personal communication, 2008
So here you are! In front of you is a newborn, a tiny miracle; a little person that you and your loved one created. This little person looks a little like your aunt Ruth, your father, and you. You have never experienced anything like the love and affection you feel for this little person and you want to guide his or her life the best you can.
What do you do? Does it matter how you hold it, feed it, talk it, attend to it? The short answer is ‘yes’. But the longer answer is that what the infant brain needs in terms of stimulation from parents is relatively simple and very natural. The baby’s brain is a “learning machine” set from day one to absorb and adapt to the world around it.
The parent’s job is a reasonably simple one—to provide an environment that fosters development of skills that will be helpful in later life. If it were an overwhelming task, humans would have died out as a species eons ago. But babies in a host of variable cultures, and subject to many different child rearing practices, in the main, grow up remarkably similar—they walk, talk, play, and eventually become productive adults. However, there is some new research that can guide parents on their journey.
Current research[i] has demonstrated that the primary job of the infant brain is to detect relevant information about language and the environment in which the baby is born and to design itself, in a relatively short period of time, to be an expert at that language and environment. If a baby is exposed to the English language, for example, the brain quickly begins the task of sorting that language into its smallest meaningful elements—the speech sounds—that signal differences in meaning from one word or another.[ii]
In a similar way, a newborn begins to explore his or her environment by observing how objects change in size and position when he or she is lying in a crib and later by observing how objects change when the child can move toward them and manipulate them. In just four months, the research shows, the infant can begin to pick out relevant visual cues that will help to recognize familiar faces, understand space, distinguish two versus three dimensional objects, and perceive a whole object even when only part of the object is observable, such as when a ball is partially hidden behind a block. [iii]
Through experience, the infant brain matures to become a specialist for the world the child is born into.[iv] A French child becomes a specialist in French, the Russian child a specialist in Russian. In this way, the infant brain “maps” itself to the world around it, with groups of brain cells (neurons) in a particular community like the auditory part of the brain, becoming specialists for processing specific types of information. In this way the brain builds itself to become a remarkable machine, eventually capable of understanding new and complex sentences and paragraphs, learning new vocabulary, solving complex new problems that have never been encountered before and realizing the world is full of individuals who have different, yet valid views and opinions.[v]
Since the experiences of the infant form the starting point for the development of the eventual brain architecture, it is important that those of us who are entrusted with this early experience, parents, caretakers, and day care centers, understand the role we play in the building of the brain’s architecture. It is also essential that researchers help those of us who guide an infant’s early experiences to understand which types of stimulation are “beneficial” to brain development and which could be “detrimental”[vi] as I will discuss in next month’s blog post.
What have you noticed about how babies master their environment? Share your observations on our Scientific Learning Facebook page!