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September 22, 2014
Faith and Science
Nature and Nurture
by Ami Chopine

How do babies learn so fast? Within a single year they’ve learned how to understand language, how to use all of their muscles, including walking, how to socially interact even if they can’t quite talk yet, and more.

It’s no wonder that we’ve thought of them as having genius that they grow out of once they get down the basic skills of being a human being.

Their “genius” comes from an interesting place.

The newborn brain has considerably more neural connections than it will need, nearly twice as much.

This is one of the reasons that babies might experience their senses in such a mixed up way. Within a short amount of time, the wrong connections are automatically culled out.

Learning is a matter of pruning out these connections, not adding them. A pathway that is reinforced remains. One that is never used atrophies and eventually disappears.

I really love this discovery. Think about it — how would repetition of a thing cause a neural connection to grow in a certain direction? How does the neuron know where to grow, to “save” that information? It makes a lot more sense that the neurons just randomly grow, and that the ones that don’t work just die out.

This isn’t just how babies learn. Neural growth occurs throughout childhood, and though it may slow down quite a bit, throughout all of adulthood.

It gives us a different picture of the brain than previous metaphors.

Rather than thinking of an infant's brain as a blank slate to be drawn on, it's more useful to imagine a block of wood to be carved. The rendered shape comes from removing material while working with and around the already existing fiber, grain, and irregularities in the wood.

If a child is loved, held and cherished, engaged with and taught, and given the opportunity for disappointment and sadness in a safe environment, he will naturally trust the world. He will have compassion, because that is the experience that has been reinforced.

We are all born with the capacity for great compassion.

But if a child is ignored, rarely or even never receives comfort when he is frightened or lonely, never receives affection — those neural pathways die. They become incapable of normal human relationships.

That child cannot receive love, nor can he trust since, betrayal is the experience that has been reinforced. He or she has no empathy and no ability to control violent impulses. If such serious neglect has happened during the crucial early years, even intensive caring and therapy cannot repair the damage done.

I believe people such as these cannot be held accountable for their actions, no matter how much pain and suffering they've caused. This is why we have no right to judge the hearts of men, even as we remove them from society so that they harm no one else.

(This is not to say that all violent and criminal individuals have that lack of accountability, as far as eternal judgment goes. There are those who, in their efforts to satisfy their selfish desires, burn the human goodness out of themselves.)

The inborn aspects of the brain — its structure and default neurochemistry — can't be easily changed. These are the grain and fiber and irregularities of the body that the spirit was born with and through which it will experience the world. These are not within our simple control.

Irregularities that cause difficulties can sometimes be helped with medications or very specific interventions — but only if we understand exactly what is wrong and have exactly the right tool to fix it.

Psychology today is medieval. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and nobody knows why. But that’s a topic for another day.

The experiences we give our children in the early years are under our control and actually shape the brain — the very body the spirit has been given through which it will experience the world.

Consider all of the implications of this: physical, emotional, social, cultural — even political.

We have things in our head so ingrained that we can’t see the world in any other way.

Child development is not playing with crayons. It's shaping the possibilities of a soul.

An infant is a glorious being, the child of a god and goddess, put into a situation in which she or he has no control over what is happening to them. None at all, at first.

We are only a handful of years ahead of those infants. Those years give us the responsibility to provide them with the nurture and care they need to learn the right lessons in this world. They should be treated with as much dignity and egalitarianism as is given those who are in the temple for the first time to receive their endowment. 

It’s kind of awe-inspiring and kind of frightening to know that when we are talking to children, we are talking to the eternal creatures they are and the mortal adults they will become.

Happily we come with a few preset instincts to guide us. Some are more talented at it than others. But if we take the time to understand why a child is acting the way he is, rather than letting ourselves get annoyed, we can serve him much better.

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