The FINANCIAL -- The discussion about nature vs. nurture is over. Neuroscience shows that, while the genes supply the basic blueprint, it is experience and the social environment to which a child is exposed in her early life that determines her brain development.
BRAIN DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN
Every human is born with billions of neurons or nerve cells, which form networks to process and transmit information. The structure of neuron networks constitutes the foundation for learning, memory and other cognitive abilities.
At birth, a baby’s brain is in an unfinished state with connections between the neurons minimally determined by genes. In other words, a newborn’s brain contains mostly isolated or unconnected neurons.
After birth, the brain undergoes extraordinary changes and starts forming networks connecting these isolated neurons. Crucially, in the first few years of life, the brain forms twice as many neuron connections as it will have in its entire life span. In the process of further development, those neuron connections that are systematically used in response to external stimuli become stronger, whereas those that are used less often become weaker.
At age 5-7, the brain starts a process of “specialization” which is akin to pruning weak or seldom used neuron connections. This is a very important phase in brain development. David Eagleman, a writer and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, argues that “you become who you are not because of what grows in your brain, but because of what is removed”.
All this suggests that a child’s social environment and experience construct the shape and architecture of her brain. Although the human brain never stops changing and adjusting, the foundations built up in early childhood determine our future development and learning capabilities.
THE BENEFITS OF EARLY MUSIC AND LANGUAGE EDUCATION
Contrary to what some may believe, brain stimulation is not just about logic and math. In particular, considerable research evidence points to the power of music in boosting child brain development.
According to Anita Collins (a neuroscience researcher and music education enthusiast), exposure to musical education from birth to 7 years of age significantly improves children’s memory and other cognitive functions, as reflected in improved abilities to solve complex problems, moderate emotions, and be more creative. “When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active”, she says in her TEDeX talk, “But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout.”
A quick Google search of “preschools music education” produces a plethora of resources. Examples are www.songsforteaching.com, www.musikgarten.org/teacher_preschoolers.cfm, or https://www.kindermusik.com. Indeed, given their positive impact on emotional and cognitive development, music education and practice are being increasingly introduced in preschools and schools around the world.
Despite Georgia’s rich musical traditions, no Georgian preschools and schools have instrumental music as part of their curriculum (a notable exception is the super expensive Quality Schools International-Georgia catering to a few rich families). Not surprisingly, the pedagogy taught at our teacher colleges focuses on achieving certain learning outcomes in, say, language and math proficiency – which can be measured through standardized tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Not on what makes students better learners.
Another interesting finding in neuroscience is that babies use music processing networks to understand their mother's language. They literally hear music in their mothers’ voices. This may explain the amazing ease with which children learn languages in the first few years of their life.
According to Patricia Kuhl, co-director at the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, the ability to acquire new languages systematically declines after 7 years of age. Those who start early achieve amazing results, as demonstrated by Laszlo Polgar and his three daughters (see Outsmarting Laziness: The Most Evil Giant of All Giants). Susan, Sofia and Judit Polgar dominated the global chess competition thanks to fascinating cognitive abilities (memory and IQ) they have developed through early training in music, math and languages.
THE ROLE OF FAMILY AND SOCIETY
There is no doubt that devoted parents play a key role in a child’s development and her future happiness. And this is not so much about never-ending music, math or chess drills but … endless love.
A warm parental hug – and the feeling of safety that comes with it – is absolutely necessary for a child to attain optimal physiological, social and mental development. A child becomes similar to her parents not only because she inherited their genes but also because her brain is mimicking their behaviors.
The mimicking (or mirroring) function of the brain was discovered in 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma. They identified a new group of neurons, called mirror neurons, which activate not only when you perform a certain action but also when you observe somebody else performing the same action.
Different neurons are responsible for touch, smell and action. The neurons in charge of the touch sensation activate if somebody touches you, but a subset of these neurons also activate when you watch somebody else being touched. The only reason we do not get confused is because receptors in our skin signal to the brain when we are in fact touched. As Vilayanur Ramachandran (Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego) puts it, with the skin removed, our brain will not be able to understand who is being touched – we or somebody else.
This discovery has very interesting implications, according to Ramachandran. First, it confirms that a child’s social environment serves as a mold in which the brain’ architecture is cast. Second, the mirroring function of the brain is responsible for our ability to instinctively empathize with others. Third, the existence of mirror neurons in our brains suggests a much greater degree of human interconnectedness than would be allowed by self-centered Eastern philosophies.
POLITICAL ECONOMY OF PRESCHOOL EDUCATION
Neuroscience is unanimous that a child’s earliest years present a window of opportunity for building a strong foundation for learning and development. And, yet, public investment in early learning systems is often suboptimal because the benefits accruing from such investment are necessarily of a very long term nature. While the planning horizon of typical democratic government is 3-4 years (until the next elections), the dividends from better early learning systems arrive in 20-25 years. Who has the patience?
Charles Darwin once said that "if the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." The failure of our society and politics to make a proper investment in our early learning institutions and schools is, indeed, a great sin.
More than one century ago, when building Georgia’s first schools, Ilia Chavchavadze wrote that ‘now the war is by knowledge and not by sword’. Our challenge today is to move beyond mere literacy – achieving which was Chavchadze’s primary goal – and endow our children with the ability to learn and innovate. This should be the purpose of education in the 21st century.