Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Your Brain on Childhood": An Entertaining Book for Serious Parents

A good new book recently came across my desk-- Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan, by Gabrielle Principe (Prometheus, 2011). I recommend this book to parents who are able and willing to confront the complicated realities of early development and to avoid the over-simplified strategies of Mozart and Baby Einstein. Your Brain on Childhood is clever and accessible-- but let’s face it, not everybody wants to do the hard work of understanding developmental change, and I don’t think this book is for anyone who wants a simple high-tech fix. (Unfortunately, the publisher has not provided an index or even a proper bibliography, so what might have been an excellent undergraduate course supplement is not very usable in that way.)

As some readers may know, Prometheus Books is associated with a skeptical and science-oriented publication policy (although I’d love to know why they continue to publish Arthur Janov the primal therapy man!). In line with that policy, Your Brain on Childhood questions a number of commercial ventures like the Your Baby Can Read system, and points out the power of placebo effects and the presentation of testimonials boasting that a given child can do things that are in fact in the normal range for his age. Advertising of this type is successful because many parents are unaware of confounding factors that operate together with supposedly “scientific” treatments, and may be very unclear about developmental milestones expectable at particular ages. Principe points out the commercially-manipulated confusion that tempts parents to pay high prices for products that in fact are not helpful to development.

Addressing the concerns of so many modern parents about their children’s brain development, Principe acknowledges that experience helps to drive brain growth and complexity. But she points out that not all environmental factors are relevant to brain functions. There really isn’t any evidence that Mozart-- or Beethoven, Sibelius, Elgar, or reggae-- has a predictable impact on the developing brain. In fact, it would be a pretty fatuous arrangement that would have organized normal human development so it required a kind of experience that was not present at the beginning of human evolution, in the environment of early adaptation. Could our remote ancestors have had a desperate need to hear stringed instruments in order to develop the normal intelligence and sharp senses that enabled them to survive a most challenging environment? Presumably not, because there were no stringed instruments, and they did survive, otherwise we would not be here.

As Principe points out, what we modern humans need to facilitate our development is similar to what our ancestors needed and must usually have gotten. A critical part of our brain plasticity (the capacity of the brain to be shaped by experience as well as by heredity) is what is called “experience-expectant plasticity”. This capacity involves an association between specific aspects of brain development and events that are very likely to occur during the first year or two after birth. Experience-expectant plasticity is generally a matter of fine-tuning abilities that are only generally governed by genetic factors. For example, good depth perception requires that information from the two eyes be put together appropriately by the brain, which has to taken into account the distance between the eyes. But that distance changes as the head grows during the first year, so the “formula” used by the brain cannot be the same at birth and at age 1. In addition, almost everyone has a slight difference between the distance from the right eye to the midline and from the left eye to the midline. The baby’s preferred head position molds the soft bones of the head so the face is a trifle asymmetrical, and the brain has to deal with this individual difference which is not genetically controlled.

Just as our ancestors 250,000 years ago responded to expectable experiences of this kind, we modern humans do too. And although it’s conceivable that by chance some experiences that were never present in that early environment could have an impact on modern babies’ development, it’s much more likely that present brain development is organized to be facilitated by the same kinds of experiences that made our ancestors’ babies develop normally. To think otherwise is like proposing that the diet our ancestors needed for good health has in some way been altered so that we now need to eat a substance that they did not need.

So, Principe asks, what did those ancestor babies need? What could they get? And what does this tell us about the experiences modern babies need for optimal development? Obviously, early human babies did not need battery-operated toys, DVDs, or flash cards in order to develop normal intelligence and abilities, or they would all have been starved because they couldn’t find food, or eaten because they were not bright enough to know they WERE food. What they needed, and what they had, was play-- play with things, and play with other people. Principe proposes that opportunities for play are exactly what drive the development of certain brain structures and their cognitive functions. When we prevent or interfere with play, we may also slow that development. Babies don’t need to be “entertained” or “stimulated” artificially; they do need the opportunities for play that are part of our evolutionary heritage.

A major reason that babies need to play is that playful manipulation of things and ideas remains an essential part of human life through childhood and adolescence, right on up through vibrant and successful adulthood. One important characteristic of humans is that, like the pet animals we love, we show neoteny-- the tendency to maintain certain child-like behaviors throughout life. (By the way, I haven’t found a page where Principe mentions this, but it may be there; oh for an index!) Play and exploration, not obviously connected with food or safety, are the foundations of our learning and are an important factor that determines our ongoing learning and the fact that it’s not all over at age 3. Play and exploration are also the foundations of science, invention, the arts, and all the other things that are positive achievements of human beings.

YourBrain on Childhood is full of really good stuff about things to do as well as things not to do. In many an aside, it punctures unverified assumptions like “learning styles”. I wish I had written it (but I would have fought for an index). Highly recommended for parents, and even more so for teachers!


  1. Hello!

    So Principe is a fellow Psychology Today author?

    I'd have fought for a comprehensive index. And the bibliography is very important.

    Good points about depth perception and how the distance changes as the head grows during the first year.

    Do the high pitches of some music sound like animals?

  2. Hmmm-- well, actually, I'd guess that the high pitches of music sound more like human beings talking to babies-- but that's just a guess without examining the actual sound spectra.