Ideas and concepts on brain development and the mind have evolved throughout the centuries. Some answers about the functioning of the brain, about the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system have been found, but there is still much to learn, to research, and to know.
Science has evolved from asserting that babies were just like little animals guided by instinct and who needed only very basic care, to understanding that the first three years of life are essential for healthy physical and emotional development.
- Neurons that fire together, wire together
A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud already intuited that people could change the belief patterns that held them prisoners of their emotions and of their past.
It’s only until recently that we have found evidence that the human brain has the ability to change, and that neurons form interconnections based on simultaneous firing over a period of time.
This discovery lead us to the conclusion that we start learning very early on and that we can continue learning until very old age. The brain can be altered by training.
The necessity for early intervention programs in then more obvious. We have finally proved that all events happening during the first three years of life have a decisive impact on the child’s motor, sensory, emotional and mental development. In fact, fetal magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that around day 18 after conception brain cells are already starting to form.
- Nature v. nurture
Explanations about what drives human development have evolved from maturationist theories stating that children learn and behave in certain way because there is a natural predisposition to do so, to ecological systems theory (Urie Bronfenbrenner) that emphasizes the influence that institutions and settings (family, community, school, political system) have on children’s development.
Research has demonstrated that we are the product of an interaction between one’s genetic endowment (nature) and the environment (nurture). Science has also proven that, for example, nutrition, hormones and chemicals influence the development of the fetus brain and that our thoughts as we grow up influence the way cells perform!
- Mirror neurons
Among the most interesting discoveries in the past few decades is the result of research on what has been called mirror neurons. These are nerve cells that fire signals not only when an animal performs an action but also -and this is the most interesting part – they fire when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal.
Although most of the research on mirror neurons has been done on primates, researchers have also found that in humans there is brain activity similar to that of mirror neurons.
Scientist V.S. Ramachandran believes that mirror neurons might have an important role in imitation and language acquisition - fundamental elements in the process of learning and growing.
- Stress and development
Modern life has brought to our lives many new different stressors: physical, chemical, biological, electromagnetic, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Medical science continues to show how in the process of adapting to these types of stress, the body may suffer significant damage. For one, stressors elevate the production of adrenalin and cortisol and affect cognitive productivity. Chronic and cumulative stress leads to physical and cognitive exhaustion.
Stress experienced by a woman during pregnancy, for example, affects the fetus and particularly its brain development.
Experiencing intense anger, physical violence as well as coming in contact with any chemical stressor, floods the brain with stress hormones. Interestingly, watching horror movies can also have this effect.
Interesting as well, it’s been observed that experiencing various types of trauma or neglect can activate neural pathways that lead to a child’s increased muscle tone, sleep disturbances, increased startle response, and anxiety.
The damage caused by stress can be permanent, especially for the emotional brain.
These interesting findings are promising. The main promise comes from discovering that we’re not bound to genetics and not bound to a traumatic past. We can change the wiring!