Author: Meghna Manocha, MD (Pediatrics)
When a baby is born, it has about 86 billion neurons in its brain, similar to the parents, but what makes us more informed and learned is the number of connections that have formed between these neurons through the years of learning by the process called Neuroplasticity: It’s the brain's ability to change or shape it itself according to experiences or stimuli, which is more prominent in childhood but continues throughout life (1).
At birth, the baby’s neurons are waiting to form connections with each stimulus it receives. These stimuli are provided from all the five senses the eyes, the ears, nose, tongue and especially touch. Hence we see the baby licking touching, putting everything that comes its way in its mouth. By doing so, its brain is processing information and forming connections every second. So in the beginning years of life touching, cuddling, hugging infants and toddlers helps them bond with their parents better. At this stage, providing them with toys with different shapes, textures and feel also helps improve their learning. As a baby would learn best by exploring freely in its environment, with its innate curiosity to learn and know about itself and the environment, parents can help the learning process by childproofing the environment. So the baby can crawl around, scribble on walls, taste things on its way which is safe to do so. Appreciating the baby at every new discovery of its life encourages the learning process.
By 2 years of age, the number of synaptic connections doubles that of an adult. From 2 to 25 years, the pathways that do not get used due to lack of adequate stimuli, will get pruned (lost); our personalities are accordingly molded in proportion to the neuronal pathways that are created in our brains. From 25 years of life onwards, by repeated use these pathways get stronger and stronger making us who we are. So in a way, we are what we are not because of what we learn, but what we unlearn or gets pruned. Hence the science of learning is based on two principles of Neuroplasticity:
1. Neurons that fire together wire together and
2. If you don’t use it, you lose it
So what decides what stays or what gets pruned in a growing child’s brain? Current evidence says it is the environment that one is exposed to.(2)
The Environment shapes the brain in 3 ways:
1. By forming neural connections/ neuroplasticity- forming the brain’s architecture,
2. By the release of neurotransmitters and hormones
3. Electrical activity of the brain
Neural connection form via parental response to child’s behavior .Let's take a mundane example: feeding the child while watching TV, forms a connection between food –eating and TV. By repeatedly doing so these connections become stronger. So now when food is given without TV , the child refuses to eat! Because in his mind something is not right! To his brain, eating food and watching television go together. So what may seem as a tantrum to a parent, is not so if seen from the child's perspective.
When a child is exposed to negative commands ,constant criticism, toxic environment, it triggers the stress response in him. Stress, triggers the HPA axis in the brain releasing stress hormones like cortisol , adrenaline and also the sympathetic Autonomic nervous system, which lead to stress response like increase in heart rate, BP, tightening of muscles of hands and legs, platelets become stickier, decrease blood flow to the digestive system, slowing of growth and repair. Chronic exposure to stress may lead to a slowing of growth, both physical and mental under nutrition, decrease immune response, increase in sickness and slow recovery. I often wonder whether it's anxious parents who have children falling sick often or vice versa?
Evidence also suggests that Chronic stress kills the neurons in the Hippocampus—impairing learning and memory.(3) Chronic stress also causes epigenetic changes in HPA axis, leading to intensification of stress response, which can pass on to the offsprings—leading to anxiety disorders in children.(3)
Current evidence links early life adversity, discrimination, abuse, maltreatment to later impairments in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being, suggests that many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life.(5,6)
Positive attitude, thinking, praise and joyful loving environment on the other hand keeps the stress response under control by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calming the body, increasing digestion and absorption, hence boosts physical ,mental growth and repair. Also releases “happy “ neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, melatonin and oxytocin. In fact, oxytocin is now being called the “pro-social” hormone, which is released when there is intense feeling of bonding between two individuals.
Brain cells also communicate via electrical activity transmitted between the synapses. There is some anecdotal evidence which suggests that alpha state is optimum for learning. Alpha waves are prominent when one is awake but in a calm, happy state of mind. Needless to say, one can’t really learn when one is agitated and unhappy. So, no point nagging a child to study when he is unhappy. Rather, half an hour of outdoor play will help energize the brain and studying later may have better outcomes.
So how can we enrich the environment? By an enriched environment , I mean a positive environment , full of joy, love, emotional care and cognitive stimulation. An environment that helps enrich, not only the child’s IQ but also his EQ. And self-awareness is keystone to developing an emotional quotient(4). Helping a child to be aware of his feelings, and how to deal with it is an important part of parenting.
Children are natural learners. They have innate curiosity and are constantly learning from adults, caregivers, pets. What makes one willing to learn is the Interest in any activity. It needs to appeal to ones’s senses. And one way of doing that is bringing in Novelty, even in a mundane activity. Every child is unique and every child learns at his own pace. What parents can do is provide exposure to different activities and observe what interests the child, and help support that interest, that’s all.
Reading books, outdoor play, sports, learning music and musical instruments, dance, painting and very importantly social interactions and spending time with family and friends , restricting use of gadgets and screen time and having one on one interactions with parents are known to wire the brain positively.
1. David Eagleman: The Brain, the story of you.
2. Dr. Bruce Lipton: Biology of Belief.
3. Daniel Siegel: Developing minds.
4. Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ
6. The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress ,Pediatrics 2012