Have you ever found yourself in the toy aisle shopping for toys and wonder if some of the claims that they are better for your baby’s brain are true? Have you thought about music lessons or exposing your child to a second language for the sake of their brain development?
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If so, you are definitely not alone. The 1990’s were dubbed the “decade of the brain” by the National institute of Health as a research initiative and everyone jumped on board. Suddenly, you didn’t just need to think about raising your kids to be able to navigate this world, you now had to worry about their brain. Brain games, toys, classes, exercises — and more, popped up everywhere.
But, what does the research really say?
It all started with a series of studies in the late 1990s which showed that rats who lived in “enriched” environments had larger brain structures than rats living in “standard environments”(e.g., Kempermann, Kuge, & Kane, 1997).
The “enriched” rats literally had neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) in regions of the brain associated with memory and thought organization. This was an amazing finding– it showed that our environment can actually shape the brain. But, the message got a bit twisted and anything that would “stimulate” the brain was thought to be good. BUT (and this is a big BUT) that is not actually what the studies found.
Enriched, in this case, was giving the rats some semblance of a normal rat’s life– which would be pretty varied and active– running and searching for food. The enriched rats had an exercise wheel, a nest, tunnels, and toys.
The standard rats were in a plain cage, no toys, tunnels or exercise wheel. The authors of the original study even say “…although the type of enrichment offered in this study still represents a deprived condition compared to conditions in the wild.”
In other words, giving captive rats a little bit of a better cage is going to make their brains more like it should be– like their brain would have developed had they grown up in their normal wild environment.
Neuroscientists have since developed their own terminology for this idea of a normal wild environment versus something unexpected: experience-expectant (what the brain expects from nature- or ordinary experience) or experience-dependent (unordinary experiences).
Ordinary experiences for the rats would be living in the wild — those rats would have the biggest brains of all– bigger than even the enriched rats. Ordinary experiences for humans includes anything that is “human species normal”, in other words, what we as a species all have- light, air, nutrition, family groups, language, etc.
A child growing up in a grass hut in Guatemala and a child growing up in the suburbs of Chicago have an equal chance for normal brain growth given they both have access to good nutrition, loving families, language, and anything else that is the same across humans.
Unordinary experiences differ across cultures– for example, which language (French or German) a child learns depends on where they grow up– it isn’t the same across all humans. These unordinary experiences can either harm the brain or enhance brain growth (or be neutral). Unordinary experiences that harm brain growth would be nutritional deprivation, early trauma, and child abuse (research has shown a clear cause and effect here).
But harmful experiences are not limited to those extreme cases– for example, the brain does not expect to be exposed to television with its quick shifts between scenes– it is not a natural optical experience. The brain also doesn’t expect highly stimulating toys with flashing lights and loud sounds. I believe that some of the attention problems we see in so many kids may be traced in part to overstimulation of the brain at an early age.
Unordinary experiences can enhance brain development too. Children who learn two languages at an early age have bigger brains and better cognitive capacity in some areas. There is also evidence that early music lessons boost brain development.
Back to our original question — so what does a developing brain need in early life?
4 Practical Ways to Nurture Your Child’s Brain
Play Outside. Ask yourself what is a ‘normal wild environment’ for a human child? I think being in nature is a big part of that. Get lots of exercise (in fact, it was probably the exercise wheel in the rats cage more than anything that caused the brain changes). Playing outside has even been found to reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
Limit “brain” toys and Screens. Research shows that technology can negatively affect cognitive functioning and yet, children can also learn from technology (for more on this see my post on managing screentime). The most common thing I limit is electronics, toys included. As far as electronic screens (phones, tablets, TV) I try to limit both how much time my son spends watching screens and also what type of shows or game he is watching (slower-paced more realistic shows are better for cognitive function).
Engage and Connect. Back to the ‘normal wild environment’ of a human child — the center of that and the most important feature is a family unit, the attachment figures, love, and connection. A series of studies on Romanian orphans who were routinely neglected has shown how important human connection is for normal brain growth. One catch phrase many developmental psychologists use is — “you are the best toy for your infant.” And that is true, hearing your voice, your language, seeing your expression and interacting with you is how infants and young children learn. So my advice for infants and preschoolers is that you can nurture your child’s brain simply by playing with them– play and watch them thrive!
Above all ask yourself — What does the brain expect? If it’s an unordinary experience, is it something that your child would enjoy, that fits his or her temperament? If so, then go for it. If not, then limit exposure.