Human beings are unique among the world of animal species. Most life comes into this world genetically programmed for survival; cattle stand and walk within minutes if not hours of being born; most birds are flying within six weeks of hatching; and other species are born with teeth and claws. We all have experienced the fun of watching a kitten at play stalking and attacking a sibling or a ball of yarn as if it was some prey in the wild. I once had an Australian Shepherd dog that I would take jogging with me. Even as a pup, it would lower its head and “snake” back and forth as though nipping at the heels of the cattle it was bred to herd.
Humans, on the other hand, come into this world almost completely defenseless. A blob of flesh with no teeth, almost blind, and it seems that all a newborn can do is eat, poop, and cry. It takes a baby some time to learn how to roll over, then to crawl, about ten to twelve months to learn to walk, and about a year to learn to say a few words. And we celebrate every milestone! The key point here is that the baby is “learning” these things. Some parents feel they can accelerate the process and try to “teach” their child to talk or walk. If they are intense about it, they find that it can be like the old saying about “teaching a pig to sing” – it just annoys the pig and frustrates you.
The fact is children are learning at a rapid rate. They are using all their senses: seeing, listening, tasting, smelling, and touching, to learn about the new world they are in and the people that occupy it. As they do, they are strengthening neural networks or neural pathways and forming new ones. The development of networks is going on mostly unseen by parents and caregivers, but happening none the less. It is common to hear parents proudly boast about their child who “just started to talk” and right away they were saying eight to ten new words. The reality is the child had learned those words and many more but hadn’t yet to possessed the oral skill to be able to voice them.
Sometimes I think that God has a sense of humor. He gave humans the greatest anatomical gift imaginable, the human brain, and then sat back and watched in amusement as we tried to figure out how to use it. And we, seeing ourselves as physical beings, another species of animal, have learned a great deal about our bodies and our physical world, but only recently have we begun to focus on understanding the workings of the human brain.
Last week, I was studying at a picture of the human eye on the wall of my eye doctor’s office and was intrigued by the detail in the display. All those “tiny” parts – lens, muscles, blood vessels, and nerve systems – will keep functioning to supply blood and send signals to the brain, for our entire lives. We continue to make discoveries and increase our knowledge of how to keep our bodies running smoothly and how we can combat illness and disease. However, the brain, that marvelous gift, has remained a mystery.
Until the last century or so, all that we knew about the brain we learned from autopsies and experiments on animals. Recently, because of advances in technology and the transition to the “information age,” we are beginning to study and learn more and more about the enormous capacity of the human brain and how it works.
One of the major outgrowths of this learning is the discovery of how important the first few years are for establishing the foundations for all future learning. The implications that has for early childhood development and our responsibilities as parents is tremendous.