The First Three Years
When your son or daughter is born, your child’s brain has 100 billion brain cells. However, the brain doesn’t look the same as an adult brain. The cells haven’t formed a connection to other cells yet. This cell-to-cell connection in the brain is responsible for intelligence and the mastery of skills.
When the brain begins connecting cells together, the synapses of the nerve cells form. The synapse doesn’t physically touch other nerve cells; however the neurotransmitter does affect the synapse. Nerve cells, complete with their synapse, connect with other nerve cells, and circuits are formed.
Every cell can potentially connect to 15,000 other cells. And by the time your child is three years old, there are about a quadrillion connections. However, all of these connections are not needed, so the brain starts pruning away the unused connections. The connections most commonly used are kept.
How Brain Connection Problems Happen
Some areas of the brain go through critical periods of development. During these times, certain changes and connections in the brain’s cells are expected. If they don’t occur, then it’s possible that a certain skill or sense (such as vision) won’t develop.
For example, if a child is born with cataracts and has the cataracts for several years, the child never regains normal vision, even if the cataract is removed. This tells us that during a child’s early life, there is a specific time period when the brain develops vision.
The Learning Process
The areas of the brain with critical periods of development make a lot of sense from a logical point of view. For example, learning how to talk occurs at a much younger age than learning how to form sentences. Vocabulary learning comes before forming sentences.
However, brain plasticity means that the brain is constantly changing and adapting to stimuli. If you stimulate the brain’s motor pathways by teaching your child to learn to ride a bike, your child will develop the skill of balancing oneself on the bike, motor coordination, grace, and a sense of balance. If you stimulate the brain’s motor pathways to play tennis, the child develops the same skills but a more specifically related to tennis. The sports skills a child develops stay with him or her for life.
An older child could still learn how to ski or play ping pong, but when the brain’s cells are set up in circuitry for a sport at a young age, it’s easier to excel in the sport.
Neuroscience gives us clues as to how the brain works best. And presently, many neuroscientists believe that the first three years of childhood brain development can impact someone for life.
We’ll explore this topic more next week.