Your Child’s Wonderful, Magical Brain (92Y Conference, Part 2)

Brains-TwoI’ve always been intrigued by the wonder of our brains (even going so far as to sign up for a Neuroscience course my last semester of undergrad despite the fact that I was the sole English major/non-premed student enrolled—a rain-on-my-senior-year-parade decision that did little to help me understand the brain). Recently I’ve been exposed to some research that has astonished me and rekindled my interest in our magical minds—and it is info that I think all parents should be aware of; trust me, you’ll be blown away even if you have zero interest in the science of it all.

An Expert Weighs in on Children’s Elastic Brains

I had the privilege of hearing esteemed educator JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., speak at the 92nd Street Y earlier this month (see my earlier post immediately after the conference). She’s known for her incredible ability to demystify the science around child development and identity formation, and she has an uncanny ability to skip over the jargon and use real language to get people to understand the message—and every message she shares, whether in a conference like this or in her books, including Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain, is based on R-E-S-E-A-R-C-H.

“The brain is an organ but it acts like a muscle,” Dr. Deak said. Indeed, she describes windows of opportunity for developing various skills, how to make the brain more elastic throughout our lives, and so much more. The folks at 92Y have been generous enough to allow us to embed the entire video here (thank you!).

Some of my major take-aways (get ready to be astonished):

• “In-person learning trumps distance learning,” Dr. Deak said. New research shows that children in their formative years need to be in front of humans to learn language. Referring to a study by Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., about the linguistic genius of babies (“We are embarking on a grand and golden age of knowledge about child’s brain development,” Kuhl says), Dr. Deak described how English-speaking babies exposed to Mandarin ONLY developed linguistic skills if they came directly from a person in front of them. “The language acquisition centers show no change or learning potential when the language that is heard is distant—video, audio. It only affects the language centers if it is in person. Even an audio or video tape of the mother or father has zero impact,” she said. Put aside all those “educational” DVDs and let’s spend more face-to-face time with our kids—talking, teaching, laughing!
(Watch Dr. Kuhl describe her research in more depth, if you are interested in learning more.)

• “Stretch and use the natural brain areas a lot—that’s what we’re designed for.” Dr. Deak says to let our children “move, hear, think, do.” Stretch natural brain areas first, and don’t move into artificial tasks too soon. In other words, let children play, move around, interact with the world—to develop areas that focus on primary tasks such as listening, remembering, seeing…before asking them to develop math skills, say. There is a magic to simply letting kids do, Dr. Deak says—“we are stunned by the connections between that and overall thinking and intelligence.”

• Parents = “neuro-sculptors.”

• As you increase your compassion and sympathy and empathy, you also increase your intelligence.” Wow. Yes, research demonstrates this. One more reason to teach your children to be nice and to understand how others feel (not that we should need another reason, but it’s compelling, no?).

• “Social conflict is important for you to let happen.” Two-year-olds are not developmentally ready to share—but that doesn’t mean you should always step in when they are fighting over a toy. Lessons our kids learn through experiences of conflict are critical. (Along the lines of this topic, get a preview of an article that will appear in our print issues soon: Let Them Fall; and stay tuned for “It’s Okay Not to Share” in our June issues!).

• Handwriting helps us activate the part of the brain that deals with narrow focus, so our attention and learning can be improved if we use our hands to write as opposed to typing on keys. Take that, all you handwriting-is-dead advocates.

• “If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you get a lopsided brain.” Too much of anything is no good, as is too little. And when talking about activities for kids, especially those in their formative years, variety is key. You want to walk that fine line of letting your child try enough things to learn them and ultimately to discover his or her “north star,” without letting them get consumed by one passion too early at the expense of more critical skills. Too much load actually causes your (or, in this case, your child’s) dendrites to stop developing.

• “Down-time is critical.” And you thought you and your partner were the only ones in the family worried about finding balance! If a child does not get enough down-time, said Dr. Deak, “there is a huge brain growth price to be paid for that.”

• “The brain is the greediest organ of the body.” Feed it! As Dr Deak said, “The brain is desperate for a high glucose level to function at its peak capacity.” How to get that? Eat protein + fat + complex carb TOGETHER.

• “It is brain abuse if your children don’t get enough sleep,” Dr. Deak said. So, my take: Don’t keep them up late so you can see them because you feel guilty you are working late; don’t enroll them in so many classes that you ignore their natural inclinations for nap times; make bedtime routines sacred; and respect sleep (yours and your kids’—no electronics or blue lights right before bed). The brain grows at night, and all the “repair and maintenance” we need, according to Dr. Deak, happens during sleep. Our children’s learning is “consolidated.”

I encourage you to take a half-hour to watch her video above. And if you are curious about other speakers at the conference, check out all the videos here, and read a fellow parent’s take on his experience there, including how screens damage your child’s creativity.


Explaining Mother-Child Connections in Entirely New Ways

This is likely worth another post, but I wanted to mention it in this context, as well: I was fortunate enough to have a doctor at an urgent care center in Brooklyn engage me in conversation about the brain, and he shared an interesting article in Scientific American from December 2012: “Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mother’s Brains.”

Did you know that it is common for cells from one person to integrate into the body of another person? I was aware, for example, that cells could pass through the placenta from baby to mother—but I was not aware that they could take up long-term residence there. According to this latest study, my son’s cells are likely not only circulating in my blood, but they are embedded in my brain. And my cells have taken up residence in him. And in both of our cases, they’ll likely be there for a long, long time.

Wow. Wow. That has given me a lot to ponder about our mother-son connection…

According to the article, “male cells were found in the brains of women and had been living there, in some cases, for decades.” And: Among the women in the study, researchers found such microchimeric “cells in more than 60 percent of the brains and in multiple brain regions.”

The cells can pass through the placenta during pregnancy, but there is also evidence it may occur during breast-feeding (and, I find it wondrous that cells can pass between twins in utero, too).

What do you think? Are you more fortified by the knowledge that these discoveries may lead to breakthroughs to help with Alzheimer’s or other novel findings, or by the fact that we are all really—physically—connected in ways we never imagined? I am comforted, somehow, to think there are remnants of my mother in me still, and that I carry my son with me, not just in my metaphorical heart.