How to make kids smarter and sharper is on almost every parent’s mind. Parents try their level best to support the growth of their children and to unlock their highest potential. We often see advertisements of certain nutrition products saying that maximum brain growth happens in the first five years. But what does that actually mean and how best can we support that development? Providing nutrients for facilitating growth is important but that’s not all. And what if the band wagon has been missed and the child is more than five? Is there still hope?
Let us start with looking at a newborn’s brain in the context of brain cells and connections between them. Children are born with twice as many brain cells as adults and extensive reduction in the number of brain cells occurs till around eighteen months and the reduction is mostly complete by five years of age. This reduction in number is based on the concept of “use it or lose it”, meaning those parts of the brain which are being less used will lose more brain cells. Less number of brain cells mean less synaptic connections.
Thus reduction in number of brain cells (synaptic pruning in scientific language) becomes a very individualistic process. Its individuality depends upon the external environment of the child and how that environment is experienced by the child.
For sake of simplification let’s just consider two areas of the brain- logical/executive area and the reactive area which together form a feedback loop. In simple terms it means when one is ON, the other is OFF.
The sensory inputs from the environment are scanned by the reactive area for signs of threat to survival of one’s life and in case any threat is detected our brain starts looking for escape rather than logically processing the information. Reactive area of brain is important when there is real threat to life like a tiger in front of you or crowd trying to mob you, wherein it will sense the danger and prepare you to run fast or fight bravely. But when reactive area starts considering a scolding or someone displeased/disagreeable as a real threat to life it becomes a problem. It’s turned ON and thus restricting the logical processing of information by our rational brain. Which means learning new things becomes difficult and retaining what one has learnt also takes a toll. It also means people pleasing behaviour, anger outbursts and problems in relationships.
Harsh words(includes angry words or loud voices pouring out of the screens), thrashing, trauma, abuse, neglect, unmet basic needs to the infant/child either directly or indirectly engages the reactive brain and keeps it on the run as the child is continually fearful and scanning the environment for danger. Parents/ primary caregivers form a huge part of an infant’s and toddlers environment. Thus their state of mind has a direct impact on the child. This phenomenon in scientific circles is getting recognition and being called as inter-brain transference. It is especially true for a parent- child duo. As the reactive brain has more activity it suppresses the logical brain and thus brain cells from the logical/executive area are more likely to be reduced in early developmental period.
On the contrary if a child grows up in a happy, secure, predictable environment, the reactive brain is less activated. Along with it ample opportunities to explore the environment safely and imaginative play leads to active use of logical/executive area of the brain. Thus in this case more reduction will happen in the reactive area. Raising kids in a happy environment is not necessarily the privilege of the rich, but more about values and ethos of the family.
The implications of this are huge. Being Intelligent maybe the first step but it’s the application of that intelligence focused consistently that leads to success/expertise in any area. Research is showing that children who experience more adverse events in childhood are more prone to mental health disorders, relationship problems, bad careers, more negative life events and so on. Many of these issues are compounded by the fact that more emotional reactivity leads to poor decision making skills. It becomes a vicious loop. One feeds the other. The application of intelligence becomes dysfunctional.
Children who grow in a nourishing environment not necessarily rich, tend to be more stable and successful in life. They have comparatively more ability to stand calm amidst chaos and look for amicable solutions. Not because they are more intelligent but because that intelligence or creative power is being used in a constructive direction.
So to make kids more “Brainy” it would help to keep more brain cells and thus more connections in the “thinking logical area” and let more loss happen in the “reactive-emotional area”. The way to achieve this is to create a safe, nurturing environment around the child, trying to not argue in front of little ones and being their safe haven.
If you are losing heart as your child is way beyond that age, here’s some hope. Though the number of brain cells do not change much after five yrs of age, formation of connections between them is a life long process. Scientists call it neuroplasticity. It is through these connections that the brain cells communicate and pass information from one region to another. There are billions of brain cells making trillions of connections in our brain. It’s believed that there are roughly about 100 billion cells in the human brain and each of these can have upto 15,000 connections with other brain cells.
Brain pathways ( multiple connections between brain cells) are continuously being formed or lost depending on our experiences and revisiting those experiences in memory. Everything leaves a mark on the brain. New brain pathways depend on the content we are consuming through our senses, be it touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell. The more our experiences are reinforced, brain pathways become cemented so to say. If you watch a lot of action oriented violent movies and find yourself becoming more amenable to get angry, don’t be surprised. On the other hand if you start meditating and continue with it your brain will mould accordingly to peace and joy.
Thus not just brain pathways but what also is important is the direction in which energy is applied. If it is applied in negative directions, it will lead to chaos and errant behaviour because that pathway gets stronger but the same energy applied in constructive ways will take the person to great heights. Swami Kriyananda in his book ‘Out of the Labyrinth‘ have classified the energy(consciousness) in four broad categories stating that the growth is directional and upward movement should be supported to accelerate it. The EFL(education for life) course discusses the four levels in detail along with methods to support the upward movement. Taking this course made a huge difference in my parenting and brought me relief. I could assess where my child was and what methods to use. It was difficult in the beginning but over the last three years I can say I have made some progress and my child has begun to show the changes. You may have to start alone and go a long way but when changes start appearing others pitch in their support too.
Thus if parents, relatives and teachers start changing the environment which includes them as well around their children in positive ways beginning today and stay consistent over months and years, a lot can be achieved. Persistence over a long period of time inevitably means there will be times when we will falter but instead of despairing and giving up we get up and get going again.
It’s understandable that we see shortcomings in ourselves and not want our children to fail so we want them to make changes in their lives according to the wisdom life has taught us. But unless we can work on ourselves and show them by example change is possible they might not be receptive to what we say. Also it might be counterproductive by actually enhancing their stress and anxiety. If you are wondering should we not correct their mistakes then reading “ A Scientific Approach to Correction of Mistakes” might be helpful.
If your brain has started churning up names of the personalities who made it big despite their adverse circumstances, I would like to say in all probability those are exceptions to the rule. Also it would be nice to remind ourselves that famous doesn’t mean well rounded or emotionally balanced. Some of them despite adverse life situations grew up with or had strong moral/ethical codes. And if you read about them and turning points in their lives more times than not there will be that one person who showed confidence in them, offered them hope, maybe resources. So if your family/spouse doesn’t support your efforts towards positive parenting and you start getting tired of fighting the lone battle then is the time to remember these names and not quit for even one person who holds the light is enough to show the way.
My Guru Paramhansa Yogananda said “If light is admitted into a cave where darkness has existed for thousands of years, darkness will vanish instantly.” Try to be that one light. Wishing us all strength, courage and support on this transformative journey.