Infancy And The Developing Brain
Until just a few short years ago, scientists had to make a lot of guesses about what was happening in the brains of young children growing up. Now, using MRIs, researchers are able to take images over a period of years and see year-by-year how the brain changes. Let's take a look at what we know about the brain at its earliest stage of development, even before birth (see Figure 4.5 later in chapter).
The first understanding about our early developing brains is that of vulnerability. Even in the womb, we are highly vulnerable to both good and bad experiences. From birth, the brain is bursting with new, receptive neurons. How receptive? By the age of one, neurons (your largest brain cells) in the prefrontal cortex average around one hundred thousand synapses (connections) apiece. By comparison, neurons in the visual cortex have only twelve thousand synapses apiece.10 The myelination process (wherein each axon gains a fatty coating of tissue called myelin) is slowest in the frontal lobes as compared with other areas of the brain. Myelination is a process that's both genetic and experience dependent. This process increases your brain's efficiency dramatically, allowing for faster processing, decision making, and acting on those decisions. But it's dependent on which experiences the child has and on maturity levels.
Maturity is a critical matter, because without mature fontal lobes, the child's brain can't understand, rationalize, dismiss, or even reflect on the simplest of life experiences. Young children have billions of neurons and even more synapses making connections out of a chaotic, violent, whimsical, and nonsensical world. Good, bad, or ugly, what comes at the brain at this age is simply taken in and downloaded. You can't have a brain that is fabulous at sponging up new experiences like learning a language and somehow isn't also vulnerable to bad things.
The second condition that makes the brain especially vulnerable at this age is the brain state characteristic of very young children. Youngsters are in more highly receptive brain states than are adults. A brain state can be measured several ways: chemically, behaviorally, or electrically. Researchers most commonly talk about brain states in terms of cycles per second (CPS) of brain wave activity (Figure 4.2). The slowest is delta, the 0–4 CPS seen during deep sleep and coma. Theta, half-awake and half-asleep, is 4–7 CPS. Next higher is alpha, the alert but calm state, at 7–12 CPS. Activity or excitement invokes the beta state, 12–25 CPS. There are many other states, but those are the most common.
Of those mentioned, theta is the most passively receptive of the brain states. The delta state is "dead to the world" and too subdued for learning. Both the alpha and beta states are good for learning, but the brain may be analytical, unable to focus or even be critical of the new learning. Interestingly, theta is the state in which we are most receptive. Now, guess in what state children from ages zero to five spend most of their waking hours? You guessed it—it's the most receptive ones, especially theta, the state most conducive for uncritical, undisputed downloading of new information.11
It's the same state that hypnotists use for getting the best results with audience members participating in their stage acts. The problem is that kids this age are watching television in this state, too. Children begin watching television early, often by six months of age. The typical A.C. Nielson viewing pattern shows a steady rise in the number of hours of television watched from early childhood through preadolescence. Does this create a concern for the brain that's downloading culture instead of getting enriched? It should concern you very much, and here's why. More than a third (36 percent) of all children have a TV in their bedrooms. More than one in four (27 percent) have a VCR or DVD player, and 43 percent of four to six-year-olds do.12 The typical American household has the television set on for more than seven hours each day, and children ages two to eleven spend an average of twenty-eight hours per week viewing. The periods of most violent programming were between 6 A.M. and 9 A.M., with over 165 violent scenes per hour.13
Does all this have any effect on the young brains? One study compared three large groups of kids (one in a different city). One received typical, violent TV; another group received average or neutral TV; and the third group received no television at all (it's not yet broadcast to that city). In comparing the rates of violence of these kids with those of kids in cities that already had television, what do you think was found? Guess which group turned out to be more violent (hurting siblings, misbehavior, bullying, misdemeanor offenses, and so on)? The biggest increase in violence was in the city that went from no television to violent television. 14 Why? The brain is highly receptive to constant streams of images, especially in a receptive, theta state. This was an interesting study because cities were being measured without the "contamination" of having already had television available for decades. In other studies, the starting "baseline" already has the "television effect"; the subjects already may have a higher starting point for violence, since everyone's already been watching it.
Keep this in mind when it comes to choices you make for children. Their brains are going to download the world all day—that's exactly what they're designed to do for survival—brains download the culture. They suck in the images, the sounds, the actions, conversations, neglect, trauma, emotions, and values for every waking hour. The young brain is downloading stress, problems, how to be a mom, how to be a dad, how to deal with life, what humans do all day—both from direct observation and from images in television and movies. This is an undisputed, unedited download that shapes the young child's world in powerful, lifelong ways.
If children download an enhanced environment, loaded with positives, the result may be enrichment response. If children download environments full of chaos, distress, or trauma, their brains will also change dramatically but in a negative way. This can reduce the child's ability to regulate emotions later on.15 The stress response system can become hypervigilant or hyporesponsive. These kids may become very aggressive or very passive and struggle with daily social or emotional decisions. We see such kids in the foster care, juvenile justice, or criminal justice systems.
Brain Maximizer: Avoid all television for children under the age of two. Be highly selective of DVDs for infants and children under five. For children ages two to five, only the television shows Sesame Street and Blue's Clues have a well-researched, positive track record for social, emotional, and cognitive enhancement. Children's cartoons average about twenty to twenty-five violent acts per hour, which is five times more than typical primetime shows. A typical child's exposure to violent cartoons can lead to increased aggression.16 This is the time for children to socialize, crawl, explore, talk, try out things, build things, learn games, and be protected from violence and rapid, nonsense brain programming.
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