The human brain is a wonder of the cosmos. It regularly performs feats which we can barely imagine. The more we learn about it, the more amazing it reveals itself to be. Through time it has built a vast neurological empire, continually capitalizing on it’s best structures, trimming what doesn’t work, and adding new structures as it has developed. The result is a vast network of possibilities which literally strategize and battle out particular versions of maturation. Through time, we’ve grown a brain that still carries all of it’s predecessors’ instincts and preprogrammed responses — the brain’s hardware, so to speak — while also growing parts which are almost completely left to our experience to shape — the gigs of memory for holding personal software. The result is an infant brain that comes ready for particular actions, responses, and even experiences, but one that also comes ready to learn — whatever and however it’s offered. We are programmed for operation, but we are also programmed to augment our operations, and depending on the input environment our brains chose how best to handle our development.
(One might say that this puts the nature versus nurture argument firmly to bed. With each other! As it turns out, our nature is nurture — that is, we are the world’s best nurturers of our young, and our young are the most in need of nurturing. We can’t develop properly without it, and we can’t fully develop without doing it for our own young!)
Each (normal, healthy) brain goes through much of the same evolution that our species went through to become what we are today — both in terms of growing (in and out of the womb) and in terms of development. Some of the most important early relating we do with our babies is all about soothing their reptilian (old, instinctual) brains — the part of them that needs security, to feel safe, to feel welcome and nurtured. Then after security is assured, (and to continue mixing my metaphors…) the rest of the brain begins to open it’s proverbial firewalls, and welcome more input. If the security access codes aren’t offered — either correctly or in sufficient amounts — the rest of the brain does not open or only partially opens, and therefore, is less able to receive input (and grows slower, or in a less than ideal manner). In a normal maturation scenario, we satisfy the reptilian brain, and the mammalian brain, and then gain access to the broadest possibilities for the human brain. If something goes wrong, the brain will actually reassess, recalibrate, and reorient it’s development program to suit the input environs — actually rewiring itself to be able to develop as much and as well as it calculates that it can in the environs in which it finds itself. The classic (non-nurture-related) example of this is the manner in which the brain of a person who is born deaf will re/wire it’s neural synapses to dedicate neurons that were for hearing to some other purpose, like seeing and/or feeling vibrations and/or smelling, etc..
This understanding of brain mechanics suggests a couple of things for parenting strategies that I think we could all benefit from keeping in mind (nice pun, eh?). First and foremost, we need to come to the birth with our security access codes. We need to be ready from day one and continue indefinitely to broadcast safety and welcoming to our newbies. That is our first, most important parenting task, and extends not only to how we grow and give birth and receive our babies, but also to how we respond to them daily, moment to moment, how we lead, the calm confidence we exude, and the way we carry ourselves (and them) in the world. Just think of all the ways we either communicate safety or the lack thereof in all the things we do each day — even in just our facial expressions…
The second very important thing we need to keep in focus is the kind of input we’re offering. I’ve written about this from a couple of angles already, so I’ll refer you here and here for those, but I’ll also say a bit more now. The thing I really want you to get at the moment is this: your “input” is quite a bit broader and farther reaching, as well as, a heck of a lot subtler than you may currently be thinking. Of course there is all the stuff we say, and do, directly to our little one. That’s kind of obvious, but still has subtle elements to be attended — such as how what we’re saying (and not saying) communicates a way of seeing and being in the world, one that we are constantly transmitting to our children. Then (and this may come as a surprise) there is also all the stuff that we just think and feel about the world, ourselves, and our babies — the stuff we are not consciously broadcasting at all but is still, never the less, being sent and received.
That’s a scary one, isn’t it?
We are coming to know more and more about how the brain does what it does. Two fascinating parts play into this discussion, so I will just briefly touch on them at present. One is the amazing set of neurons (found mostly in the motor areas of the brain) called mirror neurons. You may have noticed I keep mentioning them — they’re super important structures that help us not only learn the difference between us and our moms, but also help us imitate what is going on in our worlds. So our mirror neurons will fire (along with the other motor neurons) when we lift a hand to our mouths to eat, but they will also fire (just a little “quieter”) when we see someone else perform the same actions (even if we’ve never done the action before…!). This means that what we experience with any or all of our senses is unconsciously “mimicked/replayed/rehearsed” in our brains. Every time. Think about that one for a minute in terms of what our children see and experience us doing…
Now think of the possibilities for helping our children learn things — just by being and doing those things in front of them!
The second interesting brain mechanism I want to point out in relation to the current subject is the development of the cingulate cortex. The cingulate is a mind-boggling component of the brain — in part, because it is at the center of so many important processes, being “involved in cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor processing, integrating input from the entire cortex with subcortical structures” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Louis Cozolino, p106). If there is damage to this area or incomplete development, then consequences can range from “decreased maternal behavior”, “emotional instability”, and “increased response to stress”, to “decreased empathy”, “decreased expressiveness”, “inappropriate social behavior”, and “impulsiveness and increased motor activity”, not to mention “mutism” (p107). One notable part of the development of the cingulate is that “early neglect, stress, and trauma may negatively impact the development and organization of [it’s] cells, resulting in deficits in the abilities organized by the cingulate”(p108), thereby creating a life-long effect on cognitive and emotional functioning. Another note-worthy part of the cingulate’s development is a kind of entrainment with the parent’s emotional and cognitive states, such that, even without saying or doing anything (that we’d be conscious of) in particular, we provide input which unconsciously shapes the infrastructure of our children’s social brains. All of this neuro-speak basically just means that our kids are picking up what we knowingly put before them, but they are also picking up, and developing based on, the stuff we think we’re keeping to ourselves. Our emotional states, our outlooks on life, our ways of handling our emotions — all are being sensed and mimicked by our children’s brains.
(I believe that a majority of our generation and the ones just preceding it suffer from incomplete development of the cingulate, ranging from mild to severe — which is part of why many of us sometimes feel like parenting is more work than it seems like it should be. And this is also part of why it is so important to broadcast security to our infants — before, during, and after everything else.)
I know this may all sound a bit daunting. I know it may leave you feeling as though you’ve got to be responsible for a lot more than you ever thought in this whole parenting gig. But that’s not exactly my point. I would have you feel how important it is for you to help your child feel safe and welcome here — both at birth and in the months and years that follow. And I would have you know how important it is to be conscious and conscientious about the input you’re offering to your little ones. But that last piece, rather than having you feel like you’re potentially responsible for your children developing issues, I would put it this way — you have the opportunity to provide for your child’s healthy, happy development, just by being mindful of your own health and happiness. Remember what you’re broadcasting and offer the best programming you can, knowing that your audience is reading you loud and clear!
And this is part of why I always say — Be well.