The human brain has often been referred to as the most complex supercomputer we know of, operating at rapid fire speeds. However, perhaps the most unique feature of the brain is its ability to re-wire or re-shape itself. Neurons or brain cells that transmit impulses through connections or synapses, are able to disconnect and reconnect , showing flexibility or plasticity. Recent studies have shown that a child’s brain is more open to learning in the first five years of life, than at any other point. This ability of the brain to be moulded indicates that child development is dependent on so much more than a genetic blue print. It gives way to the idea that experiences, especially those during childhood, have a large part to play in building brain architecture.
Some of the concepts that support this are :
- Brain plasticity or the sculpting of brain activity based on experiences, may be most effective in the first five years of life. A child’s brain development starts in utero , a few months before birth, dependent largely on maternal environment or behaviour. After birth, it shows a progressive evolution in sensory pathways, vision and hearing, followed by language skills and then higher cognitive functioning. It is postulated that at birth, the brain has approximately 1500 synapses, which increase to 15,000 synapses after only three years.
Evidence indicates that brain plasticity can be :
- Experience dependent, i.e. the neurons that fire together, invariable wire together. Due to repetitive or practiced behaviour, the brain is moulded and altered to associate certain synaptic or nerve communications and the following actions together, leading to the formation of new neuronal pathways.
- Experience Independent,e. genetic predisposition generates nerve connectivity that is modified based on level of activity, where neurons that are active together increase their connections, while those that are not active, weaken their connections.
- Experience Expectant, i.e. the generalised development of synaptic connections that occur as a result of universal experiences in early life, most commonly, immediately after birth, like visual stimulation, sound- specifically voices and language and body movements.
There are two main considerations in neural plasticity:
- Structural plasticity , where neural networks in the brain are changed through pruning, growth or re-organization based on experiences of children in their environment.
- Functional plasticity, where if an area of the brain is unable to function, another part takes over , so as to not lose the function all together. This is attributed to learning and memory as well.
- Brain Stimulation and the benefits of early interactions
As the brain shows the ability to imbibe and shape itself according to lessons based on experiences during childhood, especially during the first 5 years, this brings to the fore front the importance of early interactions and brain stimulation for babies. The ides of “serve and return” has merits, as by creating a responsive and exciting environment for children, where engaging interactions with others ,( parents, care givers or peers) act as opportunities for the brain to learn and evolve.
Brain Stimulation involves :
a.Supporting brain development through mental stimulation, tapping into the “power of play” by
- Boosting the child’s curiosity : Answering a child’s questioning nature, with well though out, sensible answers , while encouraging the child to think further about the topic by asking leading questions in return. This engagement provokes learning behaviours.
- Exploration of the environment around them, could be encouraged using the 5 senses, through sensory play
- Leveraging the power of storytelling and creative play, to jumpstart imagination and sequencing or putting concepts together to get a sensible train of thought.
- Allowing freedom to the child to discover solutions for small situational problems by themselves, instead of rushing in to help, stimulates independence and self-confidence, as they are forced to work around a potential obstacle with minimal assistance.
- Setting routines helps to develop organizational skills and time management, setting in place healthy studying, working, sleeping and eating habits in the future.
b.Encouraging good physical health , through age appropriate physical activity and nutritious, well rounded diets
c.Paying attention to emotional health and well-being, giving attention and encouragement, which sets precedents for the child’s expectations of social interactions as well as the ability to respond to or engage with others.
3.Understanding the detrimental effect of negative environments
While brain plasticity explores the potential for neural development through positive and supportive experiences, it stands to reason that negative or toxic environments will have detrimental effects on the child’s development.
There is evidence to suggest that a hostile maternal environment in utero, due to poor diet, hormone fluctuations, drugs as well as maternal depression, neglect or abuse after birth have acted as toxic stressors to neural development.