The Implications of Neural Plasticity for the Developing Brain

In order to understand how we can change cognitive processes and promote children’s social and emotional intelligence, first we must understand the connections between the ‘hardwiring’ and ‘software’ of the brain.

The fundamental ‘hardwiring’ of the brain came about due to evolution, for example the amygdala causes the fight or flight reaction in response to a threat. This was important when humans needed to quickly assess life or death situations, however, nowadays the risks we face are much less imminent but perhaps more constant. Therefore, it is important for us as social human beings to write the neural ‘software’ or learn new coping mechanisms in order to avoid severe reactions by this amygdala, the evolutionary ‘hardware’. For example, at work, if your team does not complete a task properly, it is not appropriate to start ranting and raving, which might be your first thought, as sparked by the amygdala. Instead, the ideal outcome requires employing emotional intelligence which integrates the emotional centre with the executive or ‘thinking’ centre, the prefrontal cortex. You can imagine this as writing adaptive ‘software’ that can connect the neural ‘hardware’ in order to develop positive skills.

As adults, this is important, however it needs to be realised that children and adolescents also require the skills to build their emotional intelligence. This is because emotional intelligence positively impacts on effective socialisation and stress management. Through Goldman’s study called the ‘marshmallow test’, the emotional intelligence related skill of self-management was measured in four year old children. This study involved telling the children that they could have one marshmallow now or alternatively, if they waited until the experimenter came back, then they could have two. It was revealed that around one third could not wait and immediately grabbed the marshmallow, whereas another third were able to wait the full seven or eight minutes to receive the full reward. After a fourteen year follow up, it was revealed that the children who could not employ self-regulation and immediately grabbed the marshmallow could not cope effectively under pressure and did not have effective social skills. In comparison, the children who waited the full time revealed significantly improved high school results.

However, these results do not need to cause concern or panic for children with poor self-regulation. This is because it has been found that the prefrontal cortex continues to undergo massive development through childhood and adolescence. As a result, the developing child requires positive influences that will foster neural development and the desired emotional skills which will help them throughout their life. Moreover, due to the increase in understanding of neural plasticity, we now realize that a child’s cognitive abilities and emotion intelligence are not by any means fixed; therefore it is important to intervene during this critical period of development in order to promote positive skills. In addition, this particular region of the cerebral cortex is not only responsible for self-regulation, it is also critical for overall higher order processes such as decision making, mental flexibility, inhibiting impulsivity and so on. Therefore, by taking advantage of the remarkable plasticity in this cortical region, we can provide children with the skills necessary to cope with stressful situations, promote positive socialisation and appreciate their own strengths and abilities.

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