The article on early brain development—with an emphasis upon what parents and caregivers need to know—is both intriguing and in many ways surprising (Porter 2002). This paper will first provide some reactions to a few of the more remarkable points made in the target article, and then briefly discuss the tragic case of the Romanian children.
Perhaps the most important point made in the article is that an infant’s brain is in no sense fully formed at birth, or even by early childhood. Most people are familiar with how delicate the heads of newborns and infants are, and they take care not to injure them. What most people probably do not know is that exposure to the right kind of stimuli—including hearing voices, being held, and being allowed to some extent to explore their environments—is just as essential to normal and healthy cognitive development as not sustaining a serious head injury. A general reason for this is that the brain appears to work on a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ principle. So children who are not exposed to language during their early years will have brains which have simply closed the pathways (to put the point somewhat metaphorically) necessary for learning a first language in the normal way. Here are a couple of the more intriguing specific reasons that an infant’s brain needs to be formed in certain respects, rather than being made fully formed: (i) touching and being cuddled are essential for a child to feel loved, valued, and respected—this is because the relevant neural connections necessary for these aspects of well-being will not be made in the absence of such affection; (ii) many of us did not previously realize the specific reasons that children cannot naturally learn language after a certain number of years have passed—we just mumbled something about the brain ‘lateralizing’. However, it turns out that one chief reason for this is that the child’s auditory system eventually loses its ability effortlessly to pick-up on certain sounds, if it never hears those sounds; and (iii) a child’s self-esteem is essentially connected to its brain activity—hence, if a parent (or parents) does not help the child to control his or her feelings, for example, then it will at a certain point be too late to do so effectively.
A particularly unfortunate example of what can happen when advice like Porter’s is not heeded is provided by what have become known as the ‘Romanian children’. Until around the 1990s orphanages in Romania were known for their harsh, overcrowded conditions. Studies were done on many children who were raised in these conditions, and what was found fully supports Porter’s points. Some of the children who underwent ‘early institutionalization’, as it is sometimes called, had brains significantly smaller than the average among children of the same age who were cared for normally. Their brain activity, in addition, was decreased (and lowered in quality); and their social skills were not nearly as developed as they would otherwise have been. Though it cannot be denied that irreparable harm was done to most or all of these children, some who escaped the unsuitable conditions did manage to recover an impressive degree of normalcy. As one would expect, the earlier they got out—that is, the younger they were when they were taken out of the orphanages—the more easily and more completely they were able to recover (Pappas 2012).
In summary, the evidence that socialization and treatment of young children tangibly affects their brains and their brains’ structure seems overwhelming. Fortunately, few children we are familiar with grow up in such conditions. However, even with children who are raised much more normally it is crucial to bear in mind the lasting effects that maltreatment can have.
- Pappas, S. (2012). Early Neglect Alters Kids’ Brains. Live Science, July 23. Online. http://www.livescience.com/21778-early-neglect-alters-kids-brains.html.
- Porter, P. (2002). Early Brain Development: What parents and caregivers need to know! Online. http://www.educarer.com/brain.html.