Your Baby’s Brain, Part 1: Nurture and Nature

Do you remember the exact moment you held your baby for the first time? I bet that you do. Most of us mothers can remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

The power of that experience, whether you bonded with your child or not, set in motion a force of neural-connections, forevermore establishing the foundation for your child’s future.

Today, neuroscience — including epigenetics and the use of technology – shows us what parents and educators have long suspected: your child needs quality bonding time with other human beings from the very beginning, especially from his/her parents.

Scientific studies support nurture over nature

Based on these studies, we can put the old argument of nurture versus nature to rest. The question of whether your child’s genes or your child’s environment affects the outcome of your child’s development has now been settled by scientific data. Your child’s brain development is influenced almost equally by both his genetic predisposition and the experiences that impact the way those genes express themselves.

For example, animal studies going back to the 1940s have indicated that primates who are deprived of mother after birth will not only fixate on any available object as mother, but if further deprived of social interaction, will develop mental illness and depression. Mice who are isolated from mother and denied her instinctive and constant licking, overproduce cortisol in their blood, which distorts the natural expression of their genes and changes the structure of their developing brain. This not only negatively affects their IQ, but also makes them more highly strung and less able to handle stress.

Another famous 30-year longitudinal study followed 13 borderline intellectually disabled (ID) newborns that were placed in an orphanage. Each day an ID teenager was assigned the same newborn and, under supervision, was just asked to hold and cuddle the baby. At the end of one year, 13 of the 13 newborns were no longer borderline ID. Eleven were adopted out and their progress was followed over the years. Many of them went on to white-collar careers, such as teaching, accounting, and so forth. However, the two children left behind in the orphanage, slipped back into their intellectual disabilities.

Nature builds a blueprint, nurture secures the final foundation

Though genes layout a blueprint for your child’s potential development, they do not distinguish the direction in which your child will grow. In a sense, the environment instructs your child’s genes by enhancing some, while turning off others. For example, your child may have the genetic predisposition to be long and lean but if he/she eats a high carb diet and fails to exercise, he/she may grow up overweight. This is also true of your child’s capacity for memory, learning, emotional disposition, coping skills, and so on.

In Part 2 of Your Baby’s Brain, we’ll examine environmental influences that affect your child’s development.