More on the Brain

The 1990s was labelled the decade of the brain. It is estimated that during this decade, we learnt an equivalent amount of information about the brain that we had acquired in the previous 300 years (Nathan Wallis, 2018). This explosion of information has continued, based on the use of technology, like brain scans, to help us understand biology and physiology of learning. These technological advances have allowed us to see inside the brain in real time, ie while thinking is taking place; this is a significant advance  from speculating about how a live brain might work based on dissection of a dead one. 

In the 1960s, the brain was divided into 3 parts, ie 

- reptile (brainstem)

- mammal (limbic)

- human (frontal cortex)
 

More recently, the structure of the brain is divided into 4 

i) brainstem (most simple and involves basic body functions that are required for survival like blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, sleep, breathing, appetite, safety, arousal, etc.. It is activated by flight or freeze or fight or appeasement reactions that can occur when under stress) 

ii) midbrain or cerebullum (involves movement like motor regulation, etc. It is found at the back of your head above your neck) 

iii) limbic (involves emotions like emotional reactivity, sexual behaviour, attachment, etc..) 

iv) neo-cortex (most complex and is responsible for all higher intellect like thought ( concrete and abstract), understanding consequences, literacy and numeracy, goal setting, etc , and involves advanced social skills like empathy and emotional regulation, etc )

NB previously i) & ii) were classified under the same heading, ie reptile or brainstem but movement is regarded so significant that it requires its own category.

Reptiles have i) & ii) in their brain structure, ie reptiles do not need an emotional brain as they do not raise their young; they lay eggs and leave them to raise themselves; conversely, m 
ammals have an emotional brain in order to raise their young. Cats & dogs have i) to iii), ie dogs and cats will show emotional attachments while lizards are unable. 

Humans have i) to iv) 

"...as mammals a lot of our brain develops outside the womb, so we need a limbic system to nurture our brain into being. It is really this biological need to grow the brain outside the womb that gives us mammals the amazing gift of childhood and parenthood..." 

Compared with other animals, human's main survival method when young is attachment. Babies have somebody willing to die for them, ie their parents. When a baby looks at an adult, the hormone oxytocin is secreted in the adult; this is the bonding/attachment chemical. There is some research that shows that the attachment can start in the last stages of pregnancy and is based upon voices the baby hears while in the womb. 

Additionally, the baby responds to the "faces" that give it the most attention in the early months after birth. The literature shows that a child does best when raised by the most responsive and attuned person available to them - regardless of gender or biology; usually it is the mother. 

NB "Intelligence" refers specifically to the full development of the  pre-frontal cortex part of the brain. 

From a neurological perspective (intelligence), the first 1,000 days of your life are the most important in influencing your entire life. 
While characteristics like colour of your hair/eyes, height, etc are dictated by your genes, your intelligence is dictated more by the environment you grow up in than genes. This means you need to understand the implications of this early childhood/infancy and the type of environment that best suits the development of a child's potential. Based on this, we need to understand how to best interact, nurture and educate our youngest citizens. The biological mechanism operating in the first thousand days that contributes to how much frontal cortex develops, or how intelligent the child will be, is based on calming the survival or reptile brain during this period. For example, the frontal cortex will flourish when the child gathers data from the environment that suggests he/she lives in a safe world. Then the focus is not on survival and the reptilian brain will let the cortex "dominate". In other words, the survival brain is the default setting and has served us well for millions of years. 

"...It is the consistent, attuned and responsive calming of this brainstem over the first thousand days by one key, sensitive adult that allows the child's brain and physiology to override this default setting and develop a full frontal cortex. So the development of empathy, self-regulation, self-control, learning dispositions, higher intellect and all the other skills that will eventually render them 'ready for school' (and ready for a successful, healthy life) have their roots in the baby feeling safe, in partnership, loved and adored in the first thousand days..." 

Nathan Wallis, 2018 

Each child craves this experience of a secure attachment relationship with one key adult, ie it is built into our actual biology. 

NB Over a lifetime many people are important in a child's development, but during the first 1,000 days, one key, sensitive adult is most important in forming attuned, responsive and predictable relationship. This will greatly enhance the child's chance of reaching their full genetic potential and developing higher intelligence. 

In the 1990s it was discovered that the frontal cortex is somewhat optional in development. Parts i) to iii) will develop so long as the child is kept alive; part iv) is not needed to survive, ie you can live a long time without reading or writing and without empathy or compassion. Thus part iv) is responsive to the environment and generally only reaches full fruition if the right conditions are experienced in early years . The most important condition is developing an attuned relationship with at least one key adult starting in the first thousand days (from conception). This adult-child relationship provides attunement, safety and predictability that enable the right conditions for the frontal cortex to develop, ie 

"...its relationship security that throughout human evolutionary history has calmed the brainstem so that the frontal cortex can develop..." 

Nathan Wallis, 2018 

NB It is not impossible to develop this section of the brain later in life, but it is more difficult, expensive and time-consuming

The human brain's 
mode of operation and development is sequential. Messages to the brain pass through i) to iv). It is impossible to send messages straight to number iv). Additionally, all parts of the brain cannot be fully operational at the same time, eg the brain stem and the frontal cortex are not designed to be fully online at the same time. In fact, you only get access to the learning part of your brain, ie the frontal cortex, when the other parts of the brain have processed the information and allow it through. 

"...basically, because survival is everybody's prime concern; everything else depends on it. Learning and the frontal cortex are optional extras..." 

Nathan Wallis, 2018

Similarly, the brain's development is sequential starting with i) and moving through to iv), ie 
the prefrontal cortex is one of the last areas to be developed in the brain. 

Movement is important in developing the brain and thus intelligence. To "keep still" requires a great amount of brain activity and, as a result around half of the prefrontal cortex is involved in this activity and not available for other uses. This is not helpful in brain development. Thus instructing young students to "keep still" is hindering their brain's development. 


The child's motor skills are developed in the 6 to 18 month period, ie crawling, walking, etc.. Yet many of the devices used at this stage of the child development restrict its movements, eg eating from a high baby chair, movement restraints, etc. 

Even though the physical brain does not change much in size and weight from early teens, its structure changes significantly, eg psychologically. It basically rewires itself during the teenage years to late 20s when it reaches adulthood when areas like the prefrontal cortex are more active. 

Based on population studies, the firstborn child is usually the most intelligent and performs best. It is an environmental, not genetic advantage, as this child gets more attention from the parents than later children. Also, parents expect subsequent children to develop as quickly as their firstborn. This can put unfair pressure on non-first born children which can result in developing undesirable behaviours including delinquency, depression, suicides,, attention-seeking habits, etc 

NB Population data or studies talk about the average, percentages and probabilities of the population and not individuals. Individuals will vary around the averages, etc. For example, population data might say the average is 50% but individuals within the population could vary from 70 to 30%. Generally, young women's brains develop faster than males, ie female brains reach adulthood in late 20s;  compared with early 30s for males. For example, a female's brain in late 20s could be in adulthood while the male it is still in his adolescence!!!! 

Thus if the firstborn child is a girl, she has a double advantage compared to her male counterpart, eg more intelligent and maturing earlier. 

The education system encourages the formal development of reading, writing and arithmetic too early. It should wait until the child is around 7 years old. Any earlier is counter-productive. Under 7, playing, storytelling, etc are more important for the brain's development than knowing the alphabet or being able to count, read and write or knowing the different colours, etc

Telling a child, who cannot read, count, etc, they are lazy, unmotivated, naughty, not intelligent, don't try enough, etc can be demoralising for the child and encourage inappropriate behaviours that will reinforce the perception that they are lazy, unmotivated, etc. This can lead to increased chances of depression, suicide, etc. 

Also, strategies which are not in the best interest of the child include 

- parents setting their expectations too high and too early for a child (this can make the child feel inadequate, ie not as clever as I should be) 

NB How a child feels (sometimes called disposition) about his/herself is very important for its future development, ie if a child has a good disposition, he/she will have fewer problems in later life. 

- sending a child to remedial classes when they are not ready for formal learning 

Our education system's early focus on aspects of academic outcomes like numeracy and literacy, can cause a lack of resilience later in life because insufficient time is spent developings social and emotional skills. The academic focus (frontal cortex) should not start until the children are 7 years old!!!! 

NB Children under 7 can take on unlimited number of stories but limited academic concepts!!!

By stopping children's free play and asking him/her to focus on a more structured activity around numeracy and literacy can restrict their intelligence development. As a result of this, in some Scandinavian countries, teachers are only allowed to teach for a couple of hours per day with young children. A child's free play is pivotal in developing social and emotional characteristics like persistence, etc which can be important later on when they need to keep going to achieve something and pursue lifetime learning. 

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