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What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
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What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life [Format Kindle]

Lise Eliot

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Nature or Nurture? It's All in the Brain

Wouldn't you know it? Just as I get this beautiful, healthy neuron filled with dye and ready to image, Julia wakes up and starts crying. The experiment takes a long time to set up; I've been at it most of the day and need just ten more uninterrupted minutes. She has been so cooperative--sleeping like a baby (a nine-week-old, to be exact) in her cozy, blanket-lined computer box, safe and secure near my desk in the darkened laboratory. Finally, all the conditions are right: the microscopic neuron, vividly fluorescing down to its tiniest branches, an electrode carefully implanted to measure its electrical activity. I'm about to stimulate the cell's input pathway, to test whether it will "learn" from simulated sensory experience--when of course, Julia wakes up and wants to be fed.

What the heck. I pick her up, hike up my shirt, and start nursing, all the while twiddling dials with my free left hand. "Take off the holding current," I tell myself. "Set the extracellular voltage, configure the data acquisition, and then go!" The pulse goes out, the neuron fires a lovely train of electrical potentials, and the cell fills with calcium, color-coded, on the computer screen, with red for the most intense spots, yellow in between, and blue for the "cold" spots--distant branches that don't seem to have many pores for calcium to flow in. It's a great cell, an almost ideal experiment, until Julia suddenly pulls off my breast (curious, no doubt, about the flash of light on the computer screen) and, kicking her right foot into the delicate micromanipulator, knocks my perfect electrode right out of the perfect cell.

"No!" I wail, staring in disbelief at the computer screen. I watch as the neuron blows up into a big balloon, its membranes ripped open by the moving electrode. As it ruptures, the image on the computer screen flashes to red, then fades to orange, yellow, green, and blue as the dye dissipates. The cell is dead, a quick demise that is painful only for me.

Nobody ever said it would be easy being a mother and neuroscientist. But the juxtaposition does have its rewards at times. Here I am, trying to figure out how the neurons in a young rat's brain change with experience, and I have my own little experiment brewing right under my nose. Annoyed as I am by Julia's gymnastics, who can blame her baby brain, just trying to get some exercise for its budding motor pathways? Everything I'm trying to study in young rats is going on in her small head, a billion times over, every second of every day.

I spent ten years studying neural plasticity--the ways our brains change with experience--before Julia came along. I always knew I wanted to have children, but I had no idea how much my own research related to parenting until I actually became a mother myself. Like most new parents, I found myself suddenly fascinated by the nature/nurture issue, the degree to which Julia's future talents and weaknesses would be a product of our genes or her experience. The question is as old as humanity itself, but it is more than a mere academic debate. Whether one sides with "nature" or "nurture" makes a tremendous difference in the way we, both as parents and a society, raise our children.

Earlier in this century, the pendulum had swung fully to the "environmental" side. In a famous series of studies in the 1940s, psychiatrist Rene Spitz compared two groups of disadvantaged babies: one group was raised in what was then considered a perfectly adequate foundling home, and another group was comprised of infants whose mothers were in prison and who were being reared in a nearby nursery. Although both institutions were superficially similar--both were clean and provided the babies with adequate food, clothing, and medical care--they differed enormously in the amount of nurturing and stimulation each provided.

Babies in the prison nursery were fed, nursed, and cared for by their own mothers, who lavished enormous attention and affection on them. These children developed normally, in spite of the institutional setting and the fact that the number of hours of contact with their mothers was limited. Babies in the foundling home, by contrast, had very little stimulation; there was only one nurse for every eight infants, and except for brief feedings and diaper changes, each baby was kept isolated in his or her crib, its sides draped with sheets to prevent the spread of infection. With nothing to look at or play with and, worst of all, a bare minimum of human contact and affection, these babies suffered devastatingly. An enormous number didn't even survive to two years of age. Those who did were physically stunted, highly prone to infection, and severely retarded, both cognitively and emotionally. By three years of age, most couldn't even walk or talk, and in marked contrast to the exuberant nursery-reared children, they were strikingly withdrawn and apathetic.

Spitz's work went a long way toward changing adoption policies--eliminating the waiting periods that were at one time thought necessary to allow babies' "natural" personalities and intellectual talents to unfold. Early adoption is now universally recognized as the best option for orphans and unwanted babies, although the tragic fact is that babies in many parts of the world continue to wither in orphanages even worse than Spitz described.

Spitz showed that early nurturing and stimulation are essential to child development, and he was not alone in this view. At the time, the field of psychology was dominated by the theory of "behaviorism," which proposed that all our actions, from the simplest smile to the most sophisticated chess move, are learned through reward and punishment, trial-and-error interactions with other people and objects in the world. Babies, according to this view, are born as "blank slates," without predispositions, and infinitely malleable through parental feedback and tutoring. John Watson, the founder of modern behaviorism, even went so far as to claim:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any kind of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

No doubt Watson overstated his case, but such emphasis on early environment eventually led to the establishment of important social programs like the welfare safety net and Head Start. If children are so greatly malleable, then the best way to ensure a great society is by improving the environment of its youngest members.

These days, things have swung to the opposite extreme. We are now fully entrenched in the Era of the Gene. Every day, molecular biologists get a little closer to pinpointing which stretch of chromosome is responsible for some dreaded disease or complex behavior--alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer, dyslexia, sexual orientation. The government-sponsored Human Genome Project has made us heady with the potential of "decoding" the blueprint for every individual, figuring out where each of our strengths and weaknesses lies, what troubles may lie ahead, and eventually, how to cure our genetic ills. These fast-paced discoveries are exciting, to be sure, but the renewed emphasis on genes also has its discomfiting side--the tendency, fostered by books such as The Bell Curve and The Nurture Assumption, to say that parents and society make little difference. A child's fate, according to this view, is largely determined by heredity, leaving little we can do to improve matters.

As a neuroscientist, it's hard to fully accept this position. Of course, genes are important, but anyone who has ever studied nerve cells can tell you how remarkably plastic they are. The brain itself is literally molded by experience: every sight, sound, and thought leaves an imprint on specific neural circuits, modifying the way future sights, sounds, and thoughts will be registered. Brain hardware is not fixed, but living, dynamic tissue that is constantly updating itself to meet the sensory, motor, emotional, and intellectual demands at hand.

My own fascination with neural plasticity was only magnified with newborn Julia in my arms. If ever there was a time for experience to mold her brain, this was it. Although we know from studies of adult learning that the brain remains malleable throughout life, it is massively more so in infancy. Brain surgeons can even remove an entire hemisphere from the cerebral cortex of a young child (which in rare instances is the only treatment for profound epilepsy), and he or she will suffer surprisingly little loss of physical function or intellectual capacity.

I found myself wondering about every interaction: What is this caress, this diaper change, this lullaby doing to Julia's brain? Which circuits are already turned on, and which are still wiring up? What happened, at six weeks, to make her suddenly start smiling, or at eighteen weeks, so that she could finally reach out and grasp her rattle? Can Julia see those computer designs I taped up in her box? Hear the neuron firing away through the audio monitor? Know that I am her mother? Are we, her enraptured parents, in any way responsible for these wiring events, or would they have happened without any particular nurturing on our part, unfolding, like a budding flower, along a programmed trajectory that requires nothing but the most basic food, water, and air?

In other words, I needed to know: What is going on inside that little head, and what difference can I, as a parent, make in her putting it all together?

Revue de presse

"With impressive depth and clarity, Eliot...offers a comprehensive overview of current scientific knowledge about infant and early childhood brain development...Popular science at its best."
--Publishers Weekly, starred review

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.5 étoiles sur 5  203 commentaires
241 internautes sur 246 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 an excellent resource for parents, grandparents and teachers 11 juillet 2001
Par audrey - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
Subtitled 'How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life' and written by a neuroscientist mother of three, this book benefits as much from its organization as the material it presents. Research, supplemented with anecdotes, is divided into chapters based on sense or function and then detailed chronologically within each section. Chapters include: The Basic Biology of Brain Development; How Birth Affects the Brain; The Importance of Touch; The Early World of Smell; Taste, Milk, and the Origins of Food Preference; Wiring Up the Visual Brain; How Hearing Evolves; Motor Milestones; Social-Emotional Growth; The Experience of Memory; Language and the Developing Brain; How Intelligence Grows in the Brain; Nature, Nurture, and Sex Differences in Intellectual Development; How to Raise a Smarter Child.
This is one of those books you should write in -- underline, highlight, take notes -- because if you are indeed interested in using this information to understand your child's progressive developmental changes, you will be referring to it often. The author presents a lot of research material in accessible language and style, but the book is dense and is not a day-to-day how-to guide. You will not read about colic or how to tell a cold from the flu, but you will learn why your four-month old prefers a little salt in her mashed potatoes or why most of us can't recall anything that happened before we were three-and-a-half years old. Because there is a lot of information, this is not one of the easiest books you will ever read, but it is eminently worthwhile. The author not only synopsizes a lot of research for us, but also defines the limits of research and/or those issues which are still under debate or not yet fully understood, and discusses the evolutionary implications of various developmental changes.
A Notes section details sources so you can follow up in areas in which you're particularly interested. (With 458 Notes, I'm not sure why one reviewer criticized the book for lack of documentation.) A thorough index. This book seems to benefit as much from good editing as exemplary authorship.
161 internautes sur 167 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Interesting, but not what I expected from the description 13 mars 2005
Par Wixby Bonnet - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
I'll briefly mention that like many other reviewers, my book totally fell apart before I even read half of it. But that's not the author's fault.

I had expected this book to be a year-by-year description from birth through age 5 of how a child's mind develops and how parents can nurture that development. I was quite wrong. This book covers a lot of in utero development from conception through about the seventh month of pregnancy and it touches on how long after birth these processes take to refine. The book also devotes a lot of attention to toxins and how they can affect the embryo or fetus. There is a break down of the five senses and how functional they are during pregnancy and infancy. The book reads much like biology and physiology textbooks I had in school. It also sites many studies using rats, monkeys, cats and children. If you are not interested in biology or the related research, you may have a difficult time staying with this book. I do find biology interesting and I had to force myself to read certain sections.

As I mentioned, I expected something far different than what I read in this book. I found about thirty pages of the first sixteen chapters and most of the seventeenth chapter had information that I could apply to the nuturing and development of my child. The book demonstrated that half of a child's IQ is inherited and half can be nutured by getting directly involved with your child and his/her activities. This advice is not just for infants and toddlers. The author suggests staying involved through the teen years too. It also expressed that breastfed babies score about six points higher on IQ tests than babies who are not breastfed. One other interesting point - first born children are smarter than their siblings. This is because they learn from teaching the younger child as opposed to the common belief that the younger child learns from the older one.

If you are interested in reading this book, I suggest doing so before or during your pregnancy. There is information you might find useful even before conception.
176 internautes sur 185 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A fascinating book and very informative to read 28 novembre 2001
Par Un client - Publié sur
In this book, Lise Eliot goes in depth discussing current scientific knowledge about infant and early childhood brain development. I found this book very interesting to read. I would recommend this book who is interested or is researching/studying child development or how a child's brain and mind develops in the 1st five years. The book is very well written and quite easy to read. There were some medical terminology I didn't understand so I look it up in a medical book. Some of the many things discussed in this book are:
How the brain is developed
Prenatal risk factors
The special benefits of breast milk for brain development
What newborns can hear
Infant walkers don't help infants walk
How to encourage a baby's motor development
Stress, attachment, and brain development
How the brain store memories?
Language in the 1st eighteen months
The role of genes
The role of environment
The chapters in the book are:
Chapter 1 Nature or Nuture? It's All in the Brain
Chapter 2 The Basic Biology of Brain Development
Chapter 3 Prenatal Influences on the Developing Brain
Chapter 4 How Birth Affects the Brain
Chapter 5 The Importance of Touch
Chapter 6 Why Babies Love to be Bounced: The Precocious Sense of Balance and Motion
Chapter 7 The Early World of Smell
Chapter 8 Taste, Milk, and the Orgins of Food Preference
Chapter 9 Wiring Up the Visual Brain
Chapter 10 How Hearing Evolves
Chapter 11 Motor Milestones
Chapter 12 Social Emotional Growth
Chapter 13 The Emergence of Memory
Chapter 14 Language and the Developing Brain
Chapter 15 How Intelligence Grows in the Brain
Chapter 16 Nature, Nurture, and Sex Differences in Intellectual Development
Chapter 17 How to Raise a Smarter Child
90 internautes sur 94 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 the only parenting book I've used 29 janvier 2004
Par Sajil Unni - Publié sur
I've browsed through other parenting books written by "parenting experts", but a quick glance always let me know that their claims were dubious and didn't pertain to all the different kinds of children out there. This book does not try to tell you how to act as a parent, instead it tells you what is physiologically going on inside their bodies and brains so that you can figure it out for yourself.
For example, when my son was around 1 1/2 I recognized that he was going through a verbal growth phenomenon (that every child experiences) refered to as "fast mapping" in the book. Children at this age have the most extraordinary ability to understand new words through context at a mind boggling rate. The author described it as something that no supercomputer array in the world is able to do as fast as a toddler. Since his brain might never again be that willing to absorb new data I decided to try to teach him as much as I could easily. He became potty trained at 18 mo. By 21 mo. he was able to recognize the uppercase and lowercase alphabet. By 27 mo he knew all the states, capitals, planets, and many dinosaurs and presidents. His learning frenzy slowed down by the time he was 2 1/2, but now at almost 3 1/2 he does have the ability to read at a 1st grade level.
But it's not just in academic areas that this book is beneficial. It also imparts the research done in behavioral areas. I learned how beneficial constant interaction and affection has on children's behavior, and so adopted that approach. It also gave examples about the benefit of positive reinforcement, consistant discipline, and logical consequences. We have found these preemptive actions on our part has led to a relatively easy introduction into parenting. Basically, because we know "what's going on in there", we know what to do to get the results we want to get.
Although I bought this book when my son was a few months old, I now give it to my pregnant friends because of it's clear-cut pregnancy advice, supported by research rather than word of mouth. It outlines all the environmental and even psychological factors that can have a tangible effect on your child. For example, most concerned pregnant moms give up caffeine to prevent birth defects. But when this claim is subject to the scientific method, even copious amounts of caffeine have no effect on the babies. But research does indicate that the mother's stress level does have at least a short term impact on the baby's brain. So in that way the book directs you to put your focus more on your psychological well being than on avoiding Diet Coke.
Overall, a tremendous resource.
15 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Thorough, Organized, and Very Useful 30 novembre 2005
Par C. Kilroy - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
As a former biologist, i found much of the popular reading material (from my admittedly incomplete review of what is available) about childhood development pretty lacking. And with the depth of scientific literature on the topic, it is refreshing to find something written with the lay public in mind that covers this subject so well.

I imagine the book will be fairly challenging to persons without a substantial amount of scientific training, but that being said it is well worth reading if you like accepting challenges and will be a parent (or have an interest in how your brain works).

Probably the best book i read last year, and the only "baby book" i have come across that is worth reading at all.
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