Watch Nathan Mikaere-Wallis explaining brain development in babies, as well as material by the Brainwave Trust on the amazing human brain.
If you missed watching the YouTube clip ‘Brain development for babies — An introduction to neuroscience and infant development’ with a family during the first 6 months of their baby’s life, watch it with them at your next visit. It’s a Compass seminar presented by Nathan Mikaere-Wallis (5:37 minutes).
Compass Seminars New Zealand Nathan Mikaere Wallis Brain Development for Babies (transcript)
[Graphic: Brain Development for Babies graphic]
Nathan Mikaere Wallis:
Some of the big insights that we’ve got from neuroscience in the last sort of ten, 15 years, one of the first things to really stand out is that the first three years are the most important. Not just because babies are precious and pure and fragile. I mean, that’s reason enough. But the first three years are the most important, essentially because the human brain is not ready to be born until we’re three years old. Right, that makes us very, very different from every other animal on the planet because, you know, a horse gets up and walks immediately after it’s been born. A human being takes 12 months to learn to walk. Does that mean a horse is cleverer than a human being? No, it just means that they follow different pathways.
The human brain is different from every other animal on the planet. Your heart, your lungs, your liver, all your other organs when your baby’s born are doing the job they’re gonna do for the rest of the baby’s life. All they’re gonna do is get larger. The same is true of an animal’s brain, doing the job it’s gonna do for the rest of its life. The human brain is different because we don’t reach that stage of maturity until we’re three. So that’s a huge gift for human beings. It means we have the first three years to gather data on what sort of brain we need for our lifetime.
So, we’re not just based on genetics. Actually, only 30 percent of our genes are set when we’re born. Seventy percent of our genes are what are called transcription genes, so they rely on a transcript from the environment before they decide which genes are activated and which ones aren’t.
So, our brains, another example is our brain’s only 15 percent when you’re born. So, 85 percent of the connections are gonna happen outside of the womb. I mean even when we look to the mass of a young baby, your baby’s brain is somewhere around 25 percent of an adult size when the baby’s born, and yet it’s about 95 percent of an adult size by the time you’re four. So, we’re seeing lots of growth happening, you know, the early years are really profound.
There’s two major reasons why the human brain isn't fully formed when we’re born, right? One is just survival of the mother because if the baby’s brain, you know, they’d have to have a head the size of a three-year-old and mum wouldn’t survive childbirth. And if she did there’d be no such thing as siblings because who’d do it again?
But the major reason why human beings don’t have a fully formed brain at birth is because it allows us to adapt to our environment like no other creature can. It means we can live on any part of the planet, and we’re not bound to the environments we’re born in because we spend three years data-gathering on the environment we’re in, and then we sort of hardwire a brain for a lifetime full of it. So, in that way, the first three years are the most important education you’ll ever get in your life.
It’s the first three years where human beings have the ability to impact on the potential of that human being, no time is greater than in the first three years. That’s only a tragedy in New Zealand because again we have this cultural belief that the first three years don’t matter. We will sell our houses and shift into whole different suburbs to get to the right high school because we think high school’s really important, but we’ll just go to the closest early childhood centre. Whereas what the research tells us is all of your capabilities are really set by the time you’re three.
There’s Harvard University studies, I mean there’s lots of studies supporting this sort of information but there’s one I can think of specifically, Harvard University Postgraduate School. They talked about how they could predict what income your child would be on when they’re 35 because they’re able to predict what level of qualification the child will have by the time they’re 35 based on nothing else other than the number of words spoken to that baby per day between the ages of zero and one. Right, now that’s fairly profound and that’s because the brain is in this crucial data gathering mode in the first three years. You know, it’s spending three years gathering data. And basically, the baby that is spoken to a whole lot is gathering data, that, wow, this is very complex world, isn’t it. I’m having to do this relationship thing all the time.
Remember at the start I said when you interact or when you’re in relationship, you use more of your brain than when you’re doing things by yourself. So, the baby being spoken to a whole lot is engaging all these interactive parts of their brain.
Does that mean using baby talk or any words even to an adult level?
Nathan Mikaere Wallis:
Yeah, it doesn’t really matter, it’s about the holding the baby in relationship. You can be talking gobbledy-gook if you want as long as your baby’s eyes are connecting with your eyes and you’re both enjoying the interaction and it’s responsive. It’s that responsive thing that really makes a quality interaction so are you following the baby’s lead? You know, the baby pokes out their tongue and you poke the tongue back out at them and they’re like, “Oh, she’s copying me.” You know, it’s just that interaction.
Obviously you want to surround them with, I mean baby talk’s easier for them to hear, because it’s at a higher pitch and baby’s ears aren’t fully developed so they hear those higher sounds much easier. That’s why we all naturally go like this when we go to talk to the baby because they can hear that much easier. But really, it’s just about interacting with your baby and holding your baby.
The baby that spends the first three years plonked down in front of the TV which remember is not engaging the interactive parts of the brain, even when Cookie Monster’s pretending to be interactive and, you know, do you know what letter this is? That’s right. The child might look like they believe they’re interacting with the Cookie Monster but if we had them hooked up to brain scan, we’d see that it’s not engaging the interactive parts of their brain, you know, television doesn’t.
So, yeah, the child that’s not getting many words a day spoken by a person, their brain’s getting the message that it’s not a very complex world, because, about the most complex thing you do is interact with other people.
I don’t want people to get the message from that they should hold their baby and in front of them and interact constantly all day. When they baby’s clearly sick of it you’ve gotta pick up on the baby’s, you know, yeah. But it is generally the baby that’s held in relationship more and interacted with more is the child that will get the message to grow a nice, big healthy frontal cortex.
What makes humans different?
In the video, Nathan talks about brain development in the first 3 years of life and what makes humans different from other species.
One difference is that humans can adapt to any number of environments.
If you can, try to watch the YouTube clip with the whānau, and afterwards, ask them:
- What are the most important messages Nathan is trying to tell us?
- What new things have you learned by watching this?
The amazing brain
Invite whānau to look at the brain development sections called ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ (the amazing brain) in the Whakatipu booklet Te Pihinga 2 (pages 8 and 21). Ask them:
- Can you see anything here that’s similar to what Nathan was talking about?
Tell whānau about the Brainwave Trust(external link) and suggest they read some of the articles on the website that interest them.
The Brainwave Trust has educators who do presentations about brain development for community groups – you may wish to organise a speaker to visit your community and invite the whānau you work with.