Back in the mid-1990s while I was working on my PhD, I had the opportunity to spend a week visiting the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California, San Diego. One evening, in a grocery store parking lot, I was approached by a young man who looked like a throwback to the sixties, sporting a tie-dyed t-shirt, macramé bag, a significant amount of facial hair, and smelling heavily of patchouli. He was selling herbal supplements and his opening pitch made me smile.
“Hey, do you know that we only use 10% of our brains?”
“Really?” I replied. “Well then, would you be willing to donate 90% of your brain to science?” When he didn’t respond I added, “No? How about just 50% then?”
I don’t know anyone who would willingly give up any part of their brain. In fact, you are your brain: your brain is responsible not only for your ability to learn and remember, but also for your thoughts, feelings, decisions, your ability to form and maintain relationships, and your ability to cope with challenges. It is the organ of interest in depression, anxiety, addiction, and ADHD and contributes to the risk for a number of other chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
We’ve known for decades that children who experience a lot of adversity don’t usually do as well in school or in relationships, and may even be at risk for certain mental and physical health problems compared to children who don’t, but more recent research over the past 25 years is finally shedding light on why this occurs, and it all comes back to the brain. Brains don’t develop solely on the basis of a pre-set genetic blueprint, they are also built over time through a complex interplay between our biology and the experiences we have in childhood.
The experiences that matter the most during development are social and can be thought of like the serve and return interaction between two people playing tennis. Babies and children “serve” by reaching out for interaction with adults through eye contact, babbling, facial expressions, crying, and eventually through conversations, games and other activities; adults must return the serve by responding in a developmentally appropriate way in order to keep the action going. This back-and-forth social interaction allows babies and children to practice key skills such as language and literacy, attention, working memory, emotional control, forming and maintaining relationships, and problem-solving. Repeated use of these skills will strengthen corresponding brain circuits and provide a strong foundation for more complex circuits to build on. The quality of these interactions is critically important to brain development: inconsistent, unresponsive, or absent social interactions disrupt the development of neural circuits and can lead to poor learning, social, and health outcomes.
Stress also shapes the architecture of the developing brain but not all stress is the same. Small, developmentally appropriate challenges such as getting an immunization or the first day of school are healthy for brain development because they give children the opportunity to practice their stress coping skills and strengthen those neural circuits. Toxic stress, such as that from adverse experiences like abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction, releases large amounts of stress hormones that can disrupt the development of neural circuits over time, again leading to poor outcomes, sometimes even decades in the future.
Even though children are not born resilient, it is possible to build the foundations of resilience in all children by providing them with opportunities to practice prosocial skills while supported by stable, responsive adults, and by mitigating the sources of toxic stress in their lives. As the primary adult relationships in children’s lives, parents play a critical role in this process but the good news is, they don’t have to go it alone. Children grow up in a rich environment of adult relationships, and any stable, responsive adult can play the serve and return game with kids to help them build the skills that will help them succeed in school, in work, and in life. That’s why this information is so important not just to parents, but to everyone who works within the complex web of systems and services that touch children and families.
The Palix Foundation’s Alberta Family Wellness Initiative website has a suite of online resources on brain development and its link to addiction, mental health, and physical health outcomes that are available to anyone free of charge. We’ve also recently launched a free, online course through our website that is accredited by several professional organizations and suitable for those wanting to take a deeper dive into the content. Would you like to know more about brain development? Visit http://www.albertafamilywellness.org/ for more information.
Senior Program Officer