Nature versus nurture – The age old question

We’ve all heard the debate “is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are?”. Research into early brain development has come a long way in the last 10 – 15 years and is now firmly in favour, that it is both nature and nurture that work together to fashion who we are. Our brain is the most important organ we have and from the first few days of conception our brains begin to form. Science now tells us that the kind of adult we will become depends to a large extent on what kinds of experiences we have in our early years of life.

Experts in the field of brain development concur that a baby’s brain is only 15% developed at birth with the remaining 85% largely being formed in the years up to age 3. There is a huge amount of electrical activity as cells divide, grow and connect to form the pathways which will define a child’s potential. A new born baby’s brain can be thought of as a circuit board which has 100 billion neurons and almost all the nerve cells of an adult brain. A single cell can connect with as many as 15,000 other cells which pass information to each other and it is this incredibly complex network of connections that can be thought of as the brain’s circuit board. The hard wiring of the circuit board is already completed at birth. It is the experiences that the infant has that will strengthen these connections and pathways, forming structures which will develop his or her brain. When a connection is used repeatedly in the early years it becomes permanent. It is this process of repeated experiences, either good or bad which will shape the child’s ability to learn and function.

Positive day-to-day care of an infant, particularly when the child is too young to communicate, not only takes care of the child’s physical needs, it is vital to its emotional and psychological development. It is these experiences of being nurtured, touched, cared for, cuddled, played with and spoken and sung to, along with their frequency and quality that will programme an infant’s brain in a positive fashion and these early positive experiences that determine if the child will grow into a secure, well-functioning adult.

Similarly if these positive interactions are absent from the child’s life or if there are on-going negative experiences, such as being physically, emotionally or sexually abused or neglected, or if the child frequently witnesses family violence, a child’s brain development can be altered. As human beings we are pre-programmed to survive when faced with danger and the fight, flight or freeze response is a natural reaction to either real or perceived threats. Repeated trauma, in the early years of life, over stimulates the part of the brain that responds to our survival needs and the brain develops permanent neural pathways attuned to the stress reaction. The body is also flooded with cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones. The heart rate and blood pressure becomes higher and there is reduced access to the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain which effects rational thought. This can result in changes in physical, emotional and behavioural functioning and reduces a child’s ability to listen, learn, be reasoned with or control impulses.

Ongoing abuse or neglect not only inhibits the child’s ability to listen and learn, there is also a strong association between early experiences of abuse and increased risk of developmental delays, lack of attachment, social difficulties and behaviour problems in children and, drug and alcohol addictions, promiscuity and high risk behaviours in adolescence.

For a long time it has been recognized that consistent positive experiences and a nurturing environment will result in adults who are responsible, empathetic and pro-social and that neglect, violence and abuse can result in creating aggressive and remorseless members of society. We now have a scientific basis upon which to answer the question of nature versus nurture. We understand that nature may establish a child’s potential but it is the experiences or nurture that the child receives which will give them the opportunity to fulfil that potential and give them the best possible start in life.

Information taken from the Brain Wave Trust website www.brainwave.org.nz

Published on Monday, November 1st, 2010, under Learning & development

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