The Development of the Human Brain:
Implications for Parenting in the Early Years
Executive Director, Baby TALK
A recent series of articles in the Chicago Tribune described in detail the development of the human
brain as it has been discovered through several serious research efforts. The findings reported were
fascinating but not surprising to those of us who have long believed that the early years of life have the
most impact on eventual human potential.
One of the most basic findings of the study was this: An infant's experiences actually develop his
brain. Sensory experiences (hearing, seeing, touching, feeling, tasting) actually teach brain cells their
jobs. A lack of such sensory experiences results in brain cells failing to make connections and
eventually dying off. If a child lies in a playpen all day, he is experiencing a limited number of
sensations. He will not have many new experiences through which he can establish new brain
connections. Unfortunately, these connections must be made in infancy. A person can not go back
and "redo" these experiences. The first four years of life are when the brain is "built."
Babies who have more sensory experiences are able to develop more brain power. Dr. Frederick
Goodwin who is the director of the National Institute of Mental Health participated in some of this
research. His conclusion? "Your can't make a 70 IQ person into a 120 IQ person, but you can
change their IQ measure in different ways, perhaps as much as 20 points up or down, based on their
environment." In essence, an infant born with a 100 IQ can either become an 80 IQ or a 120 IQ by
his fourth birthday, based on the poverty or enrichment of his experience base!
Another important finding of one study details the effect of a stressful environment on infants and
toddlers. Young children exposed to a steady diet of stress lay down abnormal connectors in their
brains because of high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline These abnormal
connectors set up aberrant networks of connections, causing the child to learn violent responses to
benign stimuli. These networks create a brain which is designed for "fight or flight" which may lead
an individual to violence and other inappropriate responses.
Megan Gunnar, a child development psychologist at the University of Minnesota, has found that some
children from stressful environments are able to "neutralize" their stress through a caring parent or an
involved adult. "The things that are associated with resiliency have to do with protective factors like
the quality of home life, the parent-child relationship or another relationship that provides some
security for the child."
The implication of this research is exciting for parents: There is biological evidence that the
environment and nurture they provide for their children can have a powerful impact on the child's
developmental potential. Maybe our grandparents said it best: The hand that rocks the cradle
rules the world!