What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life | Lise Eliot

Summary of: What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
By: Lise Eliot


Embark on a fascinating journey into the world of big ideas and complex themes, simplified for your understanding: ‘What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life’ by Lise Eliot. This summary will guide you through the vital stages of human development, from pregnancy and birth to the essential nurturing needed for healthy brain functionality. You will learn about the role genes play in development and how environmental factors could either help or hinder a child’s progress. The powerful effect of touch and stimulation as well as the interplay of nature and nurture in the development of character traits are some of the key topics you will explore.

The Role of Nurture in Human Brain Development

Human development is determined by genes, but nurture plays an important role in directing it towards a healthy cognitive development. The brain’s components for basic functions develop first, followed by more complex ones required for imagination and memory. Our genes determine the sequence and connection of these components. However, from the age of one to eight, a child’s brain undergoes rapid development, and the number of neuronal connections produced exceeds the number required for healthy functionality. For these connections to be maintained and strengthened, the child needs stimulation and nurture. This is evidenced by an experiment that compared children raised by their mothers in prison to those raised without human contact. Children who received stimulation and care developed normally, while those who lacked it had degenerating neuronal connections, which resulted in retardations.

The Impact of Pregnancy and Birth on Child Development

Pregnancy and birth are crucial stages in human development, and mothers’ behavior during pregnancy can have lifelong consequences for their children. From regular alcohol consumption causing mental retardation in newborns to over-the-counter drugs like aspirin having devastating effects on unborn children, the dos and don’ts of pregnancy and birth are crucial. Even frequent caffeine consumption has been linked to miscarriages, and stress can cause a premature birth. While natural birth is potentially painful, it causes the newborn’s brain to release stress hormones and develop better reflexes. On the other hand, complications during childbirth resulting from damage to the placenta or insufficient oxygen can cause lasting brain damage and cerebral palsy. These complexities make labor a complicated process that requires close attention.

The Importance of Touch for Infant Development

Touch is a crucial aspect of healthy infant development as it stimulates the corresponding parts of the brain responsible for the sense of touch. Several studies prove that preterm infants benefit from daily massages, resulting in faster weight gain and better performance in visual recognition tests. Without adequate stimulation, the brain degenerates. Infants must have a consistent experience of touch and stimulation before it’s too late. Furthermore, touch plays a role in picking up behavioral cues, such as learning to handle hot items, which is crucial for a child’s safety. The somatosensory cortex, responsible for the sense of touch, grows slowly and undergoes a step-by-step development process, beginning with the establishment of connections to sensory receptors in the mouth, followed by the hands. Children can only distinguish between objects with their hands at 18 months old.

Babies’ Sensory Development

From the time they are in the womb, babies develop a keen sense of smell and taste, which are vital for their survival. Sense of smell helps infants orient themselves and soothe themselves with their own smell, while the sense of taste helps them detect which foods are beneficial. Infants around four months old can’t detect salt, which can have tragic consequences, as evidenced by a case in a New York hospital where six babies died of salt poisoning after their formula was accidentally prepared with salt instead of sugar. Breastfeeding mothers can also make milk more interesting for their babies by eating vanilla, cheese, and mint, among other things.

The Early Development of Infant Senses

Babies rely heavily on their sense of hearing at birth and form memories even before they’re born. While their visual ability remains limited, their sense of sight adapts to their environment. By one year, they perceive spatial depth and color. Infants whose eyes are damaged before age two may suffer from blindness.

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