Ruben Baler, Ph.D.'s  picture
Ruben Baler, Ph.D.
Health Science Administrator, Office of Science Policy and Communications
National Institute on Drug Abuse

How Your Child Got Her Brain

In your mind’s eye, imagine a baby girl sitting in her high-chair, munching on her Cheerios. Every now and then, with sloppy precision, she picks up a red one, moves it slowly to one side and, after making sure she’ll be able to follow it all the way down to the floor, she lets go and giggles. Now, watch her mother, swiveling by the kitchen sink, mildly chastise her daughter, first, for the mess she is making, and then, for crying.

Baby Eating in High ChairIf she only knew… that what goes on in the brain of this child, at this precise moment is so colossally complex and precisely orchestrated that it defies imagination. A stunning bioengineering achievement created by the intimate dance between the evolution of our species and the maturation state of this project of a person.

If she only knew… that the size of that brain lies just about in the middle between the infinitesimal and the immeasurable; its lifespan, midway between the fleeting and the eternal; its output, like a dream, half real and half ethereal. And that thanks to its privileged position in space and time, and to its raw processing power, that brain offers a unique vantage point from which to explore not only the world but the brain itself.

The brain inside the head of that child and of that mother is a formidable instrument of learning and enjoyment. Yet, how often do we adults take it out of its case and play it, let alone tune it? How often do we practice? Clearly, all rhetorical questions. Is there a way to better nurture and unlock the unfathomable potential of the human brain? There is, and it is actually not that hard. The first step is to open the "user’s manual," which, in its latest version, offers transformative information on the brain’s design, potential and limitations. For example:

We’ve come to appreciate the impact of its long evolutionary history and the selective forces that have shaped the brain as a robust yet fragile system. Robust, because it is exquisitely adept at handling wild fluctuations in a broad range of physical (temperature, ambient lighting), physiological (nutritional state, hormonal), psychological (death of a loved one) and social (hierarchical status, stress) variables. But also fragile, because it is frighteningly prone to catastrophic failure whenever it encounters a challenge unforeseen by its evolutionary past, like the widely accessible high-calorie foods or psychoactive substances that promote dangerously high rates of obesity and drug addiction, respectively.

We have also learned much about its integrated circuits (e.g., reward, aversion, self awareness, emotion, learning/memory, motivation, inhibitory) and the importance of their balanced development in fostering a person’s overall sense of well-being. We are beginning to decode how specific constellations of activated neurons become the scaffold upon which memories, maps and models are built, and the powerful influence of positive experience on healthy brain development and maintenance. Importantly, we are beginning to parlay the new science of brain maturation into entirely new conceptual frameworks to create the next generation of smart education role models.

Our success as a species now depends on a deeper understanding of what makes us "us." Tapping into this knowledge will maximize our chances of raising happy children and better prepare them for a productive life in what is an increasingly unpredictable future.

But we can start today: Next time you see a child experimenting (i.e., playing) with the laws of cheerio gravity, sit down next to her, watch and enjoy. Or better yet, instigate a brain duet by inadvertently dropping a green cheerio after each of her red ones. Then wait for her face to light up with joy as soon as she discovers a new pattern with which to model and change her world.