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WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO – BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
It’s an exciting time to learn why all the things we do at Greystone House really work. Scientists are finally discovering why stimulation of young children, even infants, is so critical. When a baby comes into the world, her brain is a jumble of neurons, all waiting to be woven into the intricate tapestry of the mind. They are pure and of almost infinite potential, unprogrammed circuits that might one day compose rap songs and do calculus. If the neurons are used, they become integrated into the circuitry of the brain by connecting to other neurons; if they are not used, they may die.

It is the experiences of childhood determining which neurons are used that wire the circuits of the brain as surely as a programmer at a keyboard reconfigures the circuits in a computer. Which keys are typed – that is, which experiences a child has – determines whether the child grows up to be intelligent or dull, fearful or self-assured, articulate or tongue-tied. Early experiences are so powerful that they can completely change the way a person turns out. The emerging paradigm is that there are “critical periods” which are windows of opportunity that nature flings open and then slams shut as various brain regions mature. Sensory areas mature in early childhood; the emotional limbic system is wired by puberty; the frontal lobes – seat of understanding - develop at least through the age of 16.

Neurobiologists are at the dawn of understanding exactly which kinds of experiences, or sensory input, wire the brain in which ways. They are, however, confident that cognitive abilities work much like sensory ones. In language, for example, children become functionally deaf to sounds absent from their native tongue by approximately 12 months old. Babies whose primary caregivers speak to them a lot seem to build up neural circuitry that can absorb more words than babies whose caregivers are more taciturn. There seems to be a strong connection between music and higher-order thinking. Children who sing and listen to classical music patterns seem to strengthen circuits used for mathematics and spatial reasoning.

Emotions are really interesting. Apparently, the brain uses the same pathways to generate an emotion as to respond to one. If an emotion is reciprocated, the electrical and chemical signals that produced it are reinforced. But if emotions are repeatedly met with indifference or a clashing response – Baby is proud of building a skyscraper out of Mom’s best pots, and Mom is terminally annoyed - those circuits become confused and fail to strengthen. Between 10 and 18 months, a cluster of cells in the rational prefrontal cortex is busy hooking up to the emotion regions. The circuit seems to grow into a control switch, able to calm agitation by infusing reason into emotion. It’s possible that parental soothing trains this circuit, strengthening the neural connections that form it.

Although the brain retains the ability to learn throughout life, children whose neural circuits are not stimulated at the appropriate “critical period” are never going to be what they could have been. At Greystone House, babies feeding themselves and three-year-olds learning conflict resolution skills may seem over the top, but this is why we do what we do.

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