It’s a noble pursuit, for a parent, to want to foster in our children as many neuron connections as we can, and a staggering number of these are formed in infancy and early childhood. According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the new book, Connectome, the essence of our personalities and behaviour originate in the billions of these neuron connections in our brains. Time has an interview with Seung on the amazing implications of being able to map these connections, including the scientific possibility of ‘mind-reading,’ and understanding various neurological conditions.)
While genetics determine our basic blue-print, (we already have nearly all our neurons at birth,) early childhood is a key time for forming connections between them:
“In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.
“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.”
Parents help lay the groundwork for these connections daily, consciously or not, through environmental and sensory stimulation. But how about being mindful of factors which can contribute to what has been termed “neuron death?”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays an important role in many of our bodily systems, such as blood pressure, immune response, and glucose metabolism. Cortisol is part of our proper response to stress, pain, and maintains homeostasis in the body. However, prolonged and/or consistently elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream, secreted by the adrenal gland in the absence of activation of the body’s essential relaxation response, is a neuron killer (Panksepp, 1998), and children who are spanked frequently (see also: Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ,), experience the effects maternal emotional withdrawal, as well as babies left to ‘cry it out’, demonstrate higher levels of cortisol. Without the chance for the cortisol spikes to return to normal, a state of chronic stress can result. Responding instantly to a baby’s cues are one way of inducing this essential relaxation response. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that routinely letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.
If you want to help make a planet full of super-empathic mind readers, one small step is refusing the practices which create a toxic environment for optimal neuron synapse development.