Our brains shape and reshape themselves based on our experiences and on how we use them, especially in infants and children, whose neural systems are developing at a phenomenal rate.
A child’s environment plays a big role in their development. Exposure to different activities exercise the analytical and creative sides of the brain are important. Growing in a safe and happy environment is also crucial for your child’s long-term development. The more exposure to these activities, the better developed your child’s brain and neural systems will be in coping with what life has to offer.
Brain and neural system
The brain operates on the “use it or lose it” rule. With the establishment of new connections with each other through the formation of new synapses, the brain also ‘prunes’ away neural connections that are not used. This can lead to ‘over-pruning’. Some areas of the brain, such as those which help us see clearly, become less “plastic” or changeable when the pruning is over. This has led to tremendous concern about providing what the brain needs to prune and organize itself correctly before the “windows of opportunity” close.
For example, surgeons now remove congenital cataracts as early in infancy as possible. A delay can interfere with the development of neural connections between his eyes and brain, preventing the child’s ability to see. Ongoing research is investigating the secrets of how the brain turns on and off its ability to alter these neural connections.
The power of early experiences
Our brains shape and reshape themselves in ways that depend on how we use them. Learning a language is a nice example of how experiences contribute to each person’s unique pattern of brain development. The ability to speak and to understand speech requires minimal exposure to a language. However, which language a child learns to speak depends on the language he/she experiences, and their brain will adapt to this specific language. When an infant is 3 months old, their brain can distinguish several hundred different spoken sounds. This is substantially more than are present in any language. Over the next several months, however, the brain will organize itself more efficiently so that it only recognizes those spoken sounds that are part of the language that he/she regularly hears. For example, a one-year-old Japanese baby will not recognize that “la” is different from “ra,” because the former sound is not used in Japanese. During early childhood, the brain retains the ability to re-learn sounds it has discarded, so young children typically learn new languages easily and without an accent. When a child is 10 years or older, plasticity for this function is greatly diminished; therefore, most people find it difficult to learn to speak a foreign language as well as a native speaker if they only begin to learn it in adolescence or adulthood. More importantly, early experiences can determine how proficient a child becomes in his or her native language. Researchers found that when mothers frequently spoke to their infants, their children learned almost 300 more words by age 2 than did their peers whose mothers rarely spoke to them.
Infants need to interact directly with other human beings. They need people to talk to them about what they are seeing and experiencing, for them to develop optimal language skills. Unfortunately, many parents are under the mistaken impression that talking to babies is not very important because they are too young to understand what is being said. To ensure that disadvantaged children obtain experiences that support optimal development, a new consensus is emerging about the importance of intervening with families in the first months and years of a child’s life. Psychologists have long known that children of poorly educated, low-income parents often don’t reach the same intellectual levels as children of well-educated, wealthy parents. Studies have provided new insights into why this is so. Parents who are preoccupied with a daily struggle to ensure that their children have enough to eat and are safe from harm may not have the resources, information, or time they need to provide the stimulating experiences that foster optimal brain development. Infants and children who are rarely spoken to, who are exposed to few toys, and who have little opportunity to explore and experiment with their environment may fail to fully develop the neural connections and pathways that facilitate later learning. Despite their normal genetic endowment, these children are at a significant intellectual disadvantage. Fortunately, intervention programs that start working with children and their families at birth or even prenatally can help prevent this.
Emotional development and the infant brain
One of the most fundamental tasks an infant undertakes is determining whether their needs are being met, and they are not, then how can they be met? Infants constantly assess whether their cries for food and comfort are ignored or lovingly answered, whether they are powerless or can influence what adults do. If the adults in their life respond predictably to crying and provide for their needs, the infant will be more likely to use these adults as sources of safety and security. With his/her safety taken care of, he/she can focus their attention on exploring, taking in all the wonders of the world around them. If, however, their needs are met only sporadically and pleas for comfort are usually ignored or met with harsh words and rough handling, the infant will focus their energies on ensuring that his or her needs are met. They will have more and more difficulty interacting with people and objects in their environment, and their brain will shut out the stimulation it needs to develop healthy cognitive and social skills.
Children who receive sensitive, responsive care from their parents and other caregivers in the first years of life enjoy an important head start toward success in their lives. The secure relationships they develop with the important adults in their lives lay the foundation for emotional development and help protect them from the many stresses they may face as they grow. Researchers who have examined the lives of children who have succeeded despite many challenges in their lives consistently found that these people have had at least one stable, supportive relationship with an adult (usually a parent, relative, or teacher) beginning early in life.
Supporting healthy brain development
It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first years of life, profoundly influences how their brain will develop and how he/she will interact with the world throughout life. Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but they need information and support to develop good parenting skills. In the past, extended family members were often close by, offering good advice and acting as role models for inexperienced parents. Young families today often live far away from grandparents and other family members and rely more on community resources for information and support in parenting. There is much that communities can do to help families promote their children’s healthy brain development.
Exercise and neural development
More evidence is coming to light suggesting that physical activity, in particular aerobic exercise, may provide a beneficial influence on selective aspects of brain function. Studies suggest that aerobic exercise can improve a number of aspects of cognition and performance. Exercise might not only improve the physical health of children, but also improve their academic performance. The positive effects of aerobic physical activity on cognition and brain function have been demonstrated at the molecular, cellular, organ system and behavioural levels, indicating that physical exercise is a lifestyle factor that might lead to increased physical and mental health development during childhood and throughout life.
Exercise targets many aspects of brain function with broad effects on overall brain health. The benefits of exercise have been best defined for learning and memory, neuroprotection and alleviation of depression. Exercise strengthens and reinforces the underlying systems that support plasticity including neurogenesis, metabolism and vascular function, thereby increasing synaptic plasticity by directly affecting synaptic structure and neural connectivity. Such exercise-induced structural and functional change has been documented in various brain regions but has been best-studied in the hippocampus, which is considered the memory centre. A key mechanism mediating these broad benefits of exercise on the brain is induction of central and peripheral growth factors which lead to structural and functional change. Additionally, exercise benefits brain development, maintenance and function through reducing peripheral risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, conditions which can lead to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration. A common mechanism underlying the central and peripheral effects of exercise might be related to inflammation, which can impair growth factor signaling both systemically and in the brain.
So, through growth factor regulation and reducing peripheral and central risk factors, exercise assists successful brain development and function through childhood, and throughout life.
Music and neural development
Although still controversial, studies suggest that music therapy can be effective in assisting children in stressful situations, decreasing anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate and changes in plasma stress hormone levels. While music therapy has been found to be useful in a wide range of clinical settings, similar learning mechanisms are involved in learning music and languages.
The structure of music is complex, consisting of a small set of elements that are combined to form a structure according to grammatical rules. As with language, different systems use different elements and rules for combination. It has been suggested that everyday exposure to music may create, culture-specific brain structures and representations. With this in mind, it is possible that exposure to music and music training may lead to increased cortical tissue development, assisting language acquisition, as well as encouraging skills such as attention and executive functioning.
So as your child grows up, encourage them to stimulate and use their brain in all different types of scenarios. There is no need to force them to understand calculus or write a symphony, simply make them aware at a young age that they can use their brain to solve and understand things. Just think of the brain like a muscle, the more it is used, the stronger it becomes, but it’s also important not to overuse it as the brain needs time to relax and recover. So balance their time allowing them to also switch off and just enjoy being a child. Creating a loving, supportive and encouraging environment for them to challenge their thinking capacity and ability to ask questions will have substantial benefits on their brain function later in life.
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