Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Building a Brain

When I was a new mom, I was learning about neural networks and how memory and learning work in a biomechanical sense. Did you know that every time a newborn has an experience that ‘works’ –they get milk, they get to be close to mom, they get clean, they get sleep—their brains are building synapses? Those are links between neurons that will eventually make neural pathways.

One of the fun pieces of brain development science that has been discovered is that the more you do a thing, the faster and more automatically your brain will replicate the thing. It’s not just ‘training your arm’ to throw a ball, it’s training your brain to build strong neural pathways so ‘throwing a ball’ becomes a high-speed highway of connections that make throwing a ball an act completed without confusion, thought, decisions or concentration.

For newborns, this means that if snuggling this way, and suckling this way results in a warm, fully belly, they are likely to do it again. And tomorrow, they’ll do it again and again and again. Every success strengthens the pathway. So, while the first time they tried it, it was pleasant… and a neural path was ‘walked’ through the grey matter… it’s the fifth or seventieth ‘walk’ down the same pathway that has made it visible as a track.

Initially, the synaptic ‘walk’ might be confusing and hard to retrace (poor little confused baby trying to figure out how to latch on again at 3 days old) but every single success makes the pathway stronger. Stronger pathways make for more-skilled brains…

Practice doesn’t make perfect… but it does make brains more complex.