Brain plasticity: Developing the young brain
The development of the brain is a fascinating and crucial aspect of child development. Cognitive development is the development of the brain through enriching thought processes, such as remembering, problem-solving and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. A series of changes occur in the central nervous system in the initial development stages as well as in the later stages of ageing. Our brain undergoes a maturing process which helps in the profound formation of neuronal connections and also facilitates structural growth.
Brain Plasticity: How it works
Did you know that the last time you learnt a new dance step a parallel physical change happened in your brain? This is a result of the brain’s feature known as brain plasticity. You might be wondering what brain plasticity is. Although the term suggests otherwise, this feature has nothing to do with plastic. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. In this term, ‘neuro’ refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and ‘plasticity’ refers to the brain’s malleability. Physiological stimulation, environmental conditions and experiences can cause changes in brain plasticity. The brain exhibits higher plastic capability during the early years when the acquisition of cognitive function is supported by the development of motor skills, linguistic capabilities, and social and emotional abilities.
Let us refer to an example to understand brain plasticity better. We all know that clay is malleable and therefore, it can be used to create impressions of objects. Imagine that we are making an impression of a coin on a lump of clay. For the impression to appear on the clay, certain changes need to occur in the clay. The shape of the clay changes as the coin is pressed against it. In the same way, the neural circuitry in the brain must reorganise itself in response to experiences or sensory stimulations. The brain of a newborn develops as they experience the world through seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling the environment. This sensory information must be processed and stored. Nerve cells make connections with each other in transmitting impulses to the brain in this process.
How do our brains change?
In the first few years of life, the brain develops rapidly. As each neuron matures, it sends out multiple branches (axons, which sends the information out, and dendrites, which accepts the information), increasing the number of synaptic contacts and forming the specific connections of the brain, from neuron to neuron. At birth, each neuron in the cerebral cortex has approximately 2,500 synapses. By the time an infant is two or three years old, there are approximately 15,000 synapses per neuron (Gopnick, et al., 1999). This amount is about twice that of the average adult brain.
Each experience a baby gains from the immediate environment leaves a long-lasting effect on their abilities to learn and regulate their emotions. It is essential that they have a stimulating learning environment around them. As babies grow physically, these learning experiences help build the neuron network, multiplying the synapses formed at a rapid rate, thereby strengthening the central nervous system.
When there is an absence of appropriate teaching and learning opportunities in a baby’s environment, the brain’s development can be affected and there are chances of sustained negative effects. Conversely, by providing ample learning opportunities, we can facilitate adequate brain development.
How neural connections help children learn
When an infant experiences something or learns something for the first time, a strong neural connection is made. If this experience is repeated, the connection is reactivated and strengthened. Inversely, connections are removed if the experiences are not repeated or reinforced. This process is called pruning. The brain prunes whatever is not necessary and consolidates the connections that are necessary. During the early years, several connections are made as a result of all the experiences that a child undergoes. At the same time, there is a significant loss of connections when the brain starts to prune unnecessary connections.
I will cite an experience of mine as a mother to illustrate this. I used to buy a lot of picture books and help my two-year-old child identify pictures. My child was able to identify different kinds of birds from the book at that time. But as she grew up, she was unable to recall the names of those birds simply because she never got to experience the same activity over a period of time. It is evident that the neural connections were lost as there was no repetition of the activity. Hence, simply dumping the information on the child’s brain at an early age without revising the same is a futile exercise. It is therefore essential for early childhood educators to design their lesson plans such that they strengthen neural connections. Each learning experience should pave the way for skill development rather than pressure them into memorising facts.
Impactful pedagogies have to be implemented and reinforced from time to time. In a child’s development, the earlier we create the first correct learning experience, the stronger those behaviours and skills get secured in the brain.
An important question that is often raised is whether synapses can be formed after childhood. Since many years, scientists have been telling us that brain plasticity is at its peak during childhood. However, recent researches show that under appropriate circumstances, practising a new skill can change hundreds of millions, if not billions, of connections between nerve cells in the brain even during adulthood – it is never too late. Practice is the keyword in training your brain. Learning along with practice is what changes the brain. Every opportunity to teach children is an opportunity to shape their brains and change their future.