Neuroscience in the Nursery

by francine Hardaway on February 21, 2003

News from Stealthmode Partners 28 February 2003


A PET (positron emission tomography) scan is a view of the blood flow to the brain. If you look at a PET scan of a new-born’s brain, large areas of it are unengaged or inactive. Only the most primitive parts are working: the parts that make the heart beat and the lungs empty and fill.

If you look at the scan of a one-year-old’s brain, it has changed startlingly. In fact, the brain of a year-old child has more in common with that of an adult that with that of a newborn. That’s how quickly an infant’s brain develops. As a parent, you intuitiviely realize your child is changing fast; now neuroscience can see it.

The majority of ‘wiring’ of the brain, according to neuroscientists, happens just *after* birth. It is almost as if a new baby is born with an “operating” system, but no programs or applications. When you buy a new computer, you immediately install the productivity suite of your choice, and then anything else you think you will need. A similar procedure happens with a baby. The brain develops from back to front and lower to higher, and the last thing to develop is the neocortex–that part of the brain that allows a person to attach, pay attention, and learn.

The input of the environment is thus both dramatic and specific: it doesn’t merely influence the general direction of development, it actually affects the wiring of the brain’s circuitry. Brain scans of older kids who spent their first years in Romanian orphanages show large inactive areas that never “fire up” despite their adoption by loving, middle class American families.

What if We Miss Those First Moments?

The lower areas of the brain act as gatekeepers to the neocortex. According to Dr. Michael Phelps, the co-inventor of the PET scan, “these developmental years are not just a chance to educate, but are actually your obligation to form a brain, and if you miss these opportunties, you have missed them FOREVER. No wonder the Jesuits used to say “give me a child until the age of five and he will be mind for life.”

We all remember the experiment with the wire monkey and the stuffed monkey. The wire monkey’s baby was fed adequately, but it did not thrive. The stuffed monkey cuddled its baby more, and the baby thrived despite less adequate food.(It has been several years since I took Psych 101, and I may have some of the details wrong, but the gist is still the same).

Well, many of us today are working parents. We’ve got the wire monkey act down pretty well with out caregivers, nannies and preschools, but how are we doing as stuffed monkeys? Who takes care of your children when you don’t?

At least in Arizona, animal control workers, street vendors, parking lot attendants and telemarketers all make more money than child care workers and preschool teachers. We are also fortunate to have some of the weakest licensing laws in the country, and some of the highest caregiver-to-child ratios.

Talking to children, singing to them, reading to them, playing with them, and touching them are almost as important as food, clothing, and shelter for a child’s brain. In fact, to a child they’re not really distinguishable, because infants are looking for patterns and dependability. The food is important, but the aspect of continued food from the same person is more important. The brain develops according to pattern recognition.

And what about talking to babies? We’ve all felt like jerks talking to our infants who don’t even have their eyes open. But the more words we say to the baby, the better the brain develops. A study of 42 families over 2.5 years showed that welfare parents spoke 616 words per hour; working parents spoke 1,252 words per hour; professional parents spoke 2,153 word per hour. No wonder the children of lawyers and doctors (and writers???) do better in school.

So now there’s clinical evidence that lots of baby-directed talking results in better academic performance and higher IQ scores. Keep babbling to that baby.

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