Tag Archives: development

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.

Understanding Brain Development in Children

This article was adapted from information presented in the article “Understanding Brain Development in Young Children” by Sean Brotherson (2009).

A newborn’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells or neurons. These neurons are highly connected as one of their roles is communication, and amazingly a single cell can connect with as many as 15,000 other neurons. These connections are created through experience and learning and lead to a network which is referred to as the brain’s “wiring”. In the research, it is known that “cells that fire together, wire together”. So cells which repeatedly connect or fire together, will create a stronger, lasting bond and will therefore wire together.

catFor example while a child is learning to read the word “cat”, they are associating the printed word with the concept “cat” and the way the word sounds and even the relationship between the individual letters c-a-t. This adds to their network about spelling, language and reading as well as spoken sounds and problem solving. Hence, from birth our neurons allow us to quickly create connections that form knowledge, habits, thoughts, consciousness, creativity, memories and so on.

This neural development occurs in stages. A three-year-old child has formed about 1,000 trillion connections, about twice as many as adults have. The reason for this is that young children are vaguely aware of everything as they don’t yet know what Synaptic density during developmentis important. However, by the age of eleven, a child’s brain culls many connections that are not in use, this process is termed “pruning”. The connections and wiring that is left at the end of this is more powerful and efficient.

Researchers liken a baby’s perception to a lantern, scattering light across the room, where adult perception is more like a flashlight, consciously focused on specific things but ignoring background details.

See the ‘Synaptic Density’ image for an illustration of this process. However, it is important to note that this pruning process is based on the “use it or lose it” principle so that if a connection is not utilised, it will be eliminated to make neural space for the connections that are used. Therefore this is a developmental period whereby parents and educators should maximise learning experiences and foster a child’s capabilities. playgroundThis will ultimately provide children with the best step forward as they grow and develop into successful little adults.