Human babies are born with incredibly premature brains – apparently the result of an evolutionary compromise. About 100,000 years ago, when humans started to talk, our brains (and consequently our skulls) started to grow1. And as they kept growing, getting them out through the birth canal after they were fully developed became pretty much impossible. So while every other mammal delivers its young with its brain virtually fully developed, we humans deliver our babies with brains only about 40 per cent formed – mostly the areas essential for supporting life2.
Wired for Action.
With 60% of our brains still undeveloped, humans need to have an immense capacity to learn and grow our brains after birth if we are to have any hope of survival. That capacity comes in the form of some very ingenious built-in features. The first is that our brain is fully engineered to grow and change itself in response to our surroundings (often referred to as brain plasticity). If everything has progressed normally, we also come equipped with all the building blocks and blueprints necessary to grow and develop into fully functioning human beings. “Babies are like the raw material for a self. Each one comes with a genetic blueprint and a unique range of possibilities3”.
Read more on how humans are predisposed for development.
Evolution and Learning in the Early Years: John Abbot Speaks
Here’s the catch in this incredibly complex design: the success of the whole process is entirely dependent on what happens or doesn’t happen in our environment and the quantity and quality of the interactions we have with the world around us. Every one of us is born with incredible potential – a variety of inherited predispositions that are developed, honed, nurtured or abandoned through our everyday interactions and experiences (or lack thereof). This includes everything from our senses to our skills to our emotions. We humans literally grow our own brain as we progress through the world we inhabit. It is the combination and interconnection of nature and nurture that is the key. “By no means (is it) automatic programming. The baby is an interactive project, not a self-powered one4”.
Timing is Everything.It’s not just that our environment, experiences and interactions are important in optimizing brain development. It also matters when we are exposed (or not exposed) to certain things. Similar to how experiences within the womb affect different aspects of a developing fetus at different times (e.g. Thalidomide on day 28 of pregnancy inhibits arm growth), children appear to have sensitive periods of development where their brains are specifically primed to learn particular things or are undergoing significant restructuring based on what information the environment has provided to the brain so far. Never heard anyone speak Urdu before adolescence? You have probably pruned away all the synaptic connections and neurons finely tuned to distinguishing and creating the specific sounds of that language. Read more about timing.
Find out more about the early years.What happens (or does not happen) in a child’s life before the age of six literally shapes – to a remarkable extent – who they will become, how they learn, their abilities and their emotional capacities, making this period critical to lifelong development.
Find out more about adolescence.What’s really going on in the teenage brain, how we are getting it wrong for the adolescent learner and how the ‘craziness’ of adolescence may well be a critical evolutionary adaptation for our species.
….In studying resilience-related themes.. I found was that opportunities to take chances, take responsibility for others and for yourself, were things that predict positive outcomes for kids growing up under very difficult circumstances. Yet I began to see the very same things that we know help kids get through tough situations, were actually being _denied_ kids who were in very, very good living situations, in very, very safe environments at home and in the community.
Programs at Work
- Ian Tattersall. Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness. Harcourt Brace & Co.: New York, 1998.
- Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson. Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence. Dutton: New York, 1998.
- Sue Gerhardt. Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Routledge, East Sussex. 2004.
- Sue Gerhardt, as above.