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Wiring Our Children's Brains
Episode 8229th December 2022 • How Not to Screw Up Your Kids • Dr Maryhan
00:00:00 00:32:29

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Children's brains are built. At birth they have nearly 90 billion brain cells, and these cells makes connections which then wire together. Understanding how this happens and the role experience plays is crucial if we are to raise children who become happy, confident, resilient adults. I'll share four facts we all need to know.

Here are the highlights: 

(01:00) Neuroplasticity 

(03:44) Brain stats 

(08:02) Neurons that fire together, wire together 

(14:00) Nature and nurture’s influence on brain development 

(20:04) Pruning 

(22:30) The brain’s capacity to change never stops 

(26:07) A workout for your brain 

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Transcripts

Hello and welcome to the How Not Describe Up Your Kids' podcast. So pour yourself a cup. Find a comfy seat. And enjoy the conversation. This is episode 82 and today's episode, wiring our children's Brains is all about this notion of how do our children's brains develop, and how is this notion of neuroplasticity connected to that Now, normally, Before I record any podcast, I give myself a bit of an outline and a structure so I know roughly the areas that I'm gonna work on.

And what I've discovered is this is a huge, huge topic, and I'm not going to profess in any way to be a supreme expert in this area. So what I'm aiming with this particular episode is to give you a broad. Brush, sort of early entry level understanding of how our children's brains are wired and they develop through their years of development.

And this notion of neuroplasticity. I will do some more specific episodes around teen brains, around our, um, much younger children, but I just think it's really important that we kind of understand the broad aspect and really in a nutshell, , um, slightly giving the game away before I even start. What I love about this notion about brain development and neuroplasticity is it gives so much hope around this process that wherever our child may be stuck right now, wherever we may be stuck right now as parents or adults or caregivers or educators, is that that doesn't have to be the end story.

What we know about our brains in terms of the, our developing knowledge, and there's still so much that's coming out. Is that we don't, we no longer have this brain that we thought matured at 18 and then you couldn't do anything about it. And if you had an accident or a fall or a and and the aspects of your brain were damaged, you couldn't change it.

What we know in a nutshell is that our brain is constantly evolving and developing, and that gives us huge hope for untangling old habits and developing new. So we'll look at that a bit more specifically, but broadly that's what I just love around this whole kind of field and this whole area. And you know, it was sort of exploding when I was doing my degree and my masters and in the nineties and it's just kind of, it's like rocket fuel genuinely.

It's something that I feel so passionate about because it, for the. Premise that actually nothing is, absolute things can change. Even children who are born and have their early years in severe adversity is there can be changes. That will then give them a much more positive outcome. Now, what I will say, and for those of you who maybe have followed a lot of the kind of big campaigns that are going on, particularly around the Royal Foundation and the Now Princess of Wales, is this, the early years are crucial to give us the.

Best foundations for our children and to give our children a heads up. So if we can, if you're listening to my podcast and you've got children that are under five and you're gonna implement some of these things, then you are best placed because obviously you've got that opportunity because you have that knowledge.

But what it also means is if you're listening to this and you've got a 22 year old, if you're listening to this and you've got a 13 year old, all is not lost. If you're listening to this and you are even an. Just listening to it from the perspective of looking at making changes for you, it is not lost.

All that happens is as we get older, the notion of neuroplasticity is still there. We just need to put a bit more work into it. So let's start with just some brain statistics. These are not mine. I've, um, done a Google search and I've managed to gather some information. So let me give you a few, five facts about the human brain.

So our baby's brain at birth has roughly 86 billion brain cells, and we call these neurons. So neurons are the chemical messengers. They're not only in our brain, but they are throughout our bodies, and they connect together. The analogy I always think of is they're almost like this sort of domino effect that one triggers a message to the next, to the next, to the next, and they happen in such with such speed that as I'm recording now, I'm gesticulating with my hands.

That's. Goodness knows how many neurons are responsible for my hands moving around. I don't think about it consciously. It just happens, but it happens because of this domino effect. But our brains are also, that's where we have this huge number of these neurons, and that's what we are really thinking about today with this when we're talking about brains and when we're talking about neuroplasticity.

So although a newborn has about the same number of neurons as an adult, The brain itself is only 25% of the adult size, so that's a fact. Number two, number three, infants, neurons are only, are connected by only. So we talk about this idea, we've got these neurons, but they're connected because they send these messages together.

They're like these domino effects. So whilst they might have all of these neurons, the connections between the neurons are, uh, roughly around 50 trillion new connections, which we call. Synapses. It's just the way that they particularly connect. But they've got, in essence, a a, a young child has got roughly 50 trillion neural connections compared to an adult that has 500 trillion of these.

But by the age of three, those connections have grown from their 50 trillion up to a thousand. And 90%, this is why we talk so much about the emphasis on the early years. 90% of brain development is completed by the age of five, and then the final bit of brain development happens by the time we're about 23, 25.

And I'll come back to that cause that's a really important aspect around why we get these challenges or we feel we're getting our challenges with teens is because it's part of this like final development. So those give you some statistics. Around it, and there's been lots of analogies. Certainly. I remember when I was doing my psychology degree and my masters, we often talk about the brain being a supercomputer, and it is, it has this phenomenal capabilities and we only use a fraction of it, but because it has these phenomenal capabilities, it means that it is able to repair itself, restore itself, and make.

Phenomenal connections. What's crucial to also understand is that as the brain is developing, different areas of our brain are typically responsible for different things. So when you look at brains, you'll have an area that's maybe responsible for our physical movement. They'll be other areas that are responsible for language, for emotion, for maybe problem solving, for analytical, for mathematical skills.

So, We get these kind of areas that, that are sort of specifically seen under scans that light up when certain activities take place, but they are linked together in complex ways. If I want to be riding a bicycle, obviously I'm going to be activating aspects of my brain that are related to the physical movement, but there will also.

Areas of my brain that will be activated, for example, if I've not ridden a bicycle for five or six years, because it'll be pulling on old memories. So it'll be pulling on sort of some of the, the memory, the memory side of my brain. So it's incredibly complex, but that's kind of the basics. What I would like to do is, I'm gonna sort of approach this by looking at sort of four key broad brush things, I guess, that we ought to know.

In terms of brain development and what's so crucial about it. And then as usual, there'll then be a resource at the end. So the first one is that brains are built through connections and disconnections. And I think we often sort of focus on the connections bit, but we forget the disconnections bit. So in the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are.

every second. And this comes from our experience. We'll talk a little bit more about the nature nurture debate next, but in essence, that's what happens. So our connections are built throughout our experience with our lives. And if we think about these neurons that already exist, they are, then they then become connected.

Based on what we do. These connections are formed and there's a very sort of famous rule that I, that. , it's kind of so supremely important for us to remember, and that I always remember is this notion that neurons that fire together wire together, and there was a brilliant analogy. that, uh, Mo Gak gave on a podcast interview that I thought really just explains this notion.

So we've got these billions and billions of neurons in our brain, but they have to be connected in some ways in order for them to do something. So the analogy that he gave is, if you imagine the really old system by which phone calls were connected through a switchboard, you'd have a physical person that would then patch you through.

So they would put one sort of connection. At one point and then another. So let's say I'm Egyptian. We often used to phone go. When we were living in England, we would then phone back to Egypt, so that would've literally been a. I, we, we would've called the operator and our call would've been patched from where we were.

So click goes in and then it would've patched us through to the family member we were phoning in Egypt. And that would then connect. So what you are actually doing is two separate neurons, and what we're doing is we're connecting one to the other. That's the kind of physical aspect. This is how connections are built.

So if I do that not very often, then it has to almost be manually done. But let's say I decide that I'm gonna phone. Auntie every single day. What then happens is the operators then, ugh, it's Maryanne. She's given that court again to her aunt What? Rather than actually me patching it each time. , she calls through the operator.

Well, I don't need to do that anymore cause I know she's gonna make that phone call every single day. What then happens is those connections are made permanently so that it just happens. And that is in essence what happens when we're talking about neural connections and we're talking about this.

Neurons that fire together wire together when our children do things repeatedly, when we do things, repeat. As adults that what then happens is that those connections between those neurons become. Wired together. So it doesn't mean that you couldn't do it before, but it was a conscious, slower process.

Once you've done that, so often it becomes habitual and then it becomes something that you don't need to think about. You just do automatically. So you think about all of the things that are young, developing. Children are learning. They're learning to walk, they're learning to talk. They're learning to communicate their needs.

They're learning to understand their emotions. , all of these aspects of their development, should they repeat patterns of behavior, patterns of emotions, default thinking. So we've gotta remember that this isn't just what our children physically learn, but it's also their thinking patterns, how they approach life from that perspective.

What then happens is those connections are then made so they become habitual and obvious. . There are pluses and there are also minuses to this because what they learn, what becomes habitual can obviously be great, wonderful things that we want our children to be able to do, but they can also be wiring certain patterns that are maybe not as, Helpful for their wellbeing, helpful for their mental health.

So it's thinking that those connections are happening, whether we want them to be positive connections or whether they end up becoming less than adaptive, less than helpful connections. So when our, we are looking, so you can see now why those early years are so important. Because if we can make sure that those connections are adapted, they're helpful, they're appropriate, they nurture our children's wellbeing, then that's great.

If they don't, it doesn't. That we can't reverse that. But obviously if you've now got a hard automatic route from A to B or A to D via B and C, we need to unlearn that. So it means that it's just going to have to require a bit more effort. So those are how the connections are made. The disconnections are made during the period of lifetime in terms of what we call Pune.

So in much in the same way as if you have a plant, a rosebush, or whatever it is that you prune, where you cut off certain areas is that there'll be certain connections that would've been formed in early childhood that we then just don't use anymore. And so what happens is the brain wants to naturally, it's going to prune, it's going to cut off those connections because they're not connections that have been used regularly.

In order to warrant. So if we think about broadband, it's like that's not, you know, when we have the connections that's super fast broadband, it happens really, really quickly. And then if we have certain parts of that route that aren't used regularly, then what we then do is we literally prune them, we cut them off.

And that happens throughout our development, throughout our brain development, throughout our childhood, and then well into adulthood. You know, that's for me is such a crucial thing that we understand as parents is that our children get this through the input that they have. So let's, let's move on to the second point.

So the first one is that brains are built through connections, these neural connections. And these disconnections that happen through pruning Number two is this whole idea about nature and nurture and they both influence brain development. If we think about it from, from the aspect of sort of a computer analogy, it's pretty much garbage in, garbage out.

Not that I'm suggesting in any shape or form that any of you are pouring garbage into your children's as part of their input. But we need to remember that what our children experience throughout their lives in terms of the kind of environment that's the nurture part, is going to have a profound impact on the connections that they subsequently create and then the connections that are disconnected.

So the idea is that. Experience will activate certain neurons that will create these new brain connections and potentially strengthen existing ones. So it's about remembering that and then that those then become our super fast broadband, our super fast highways. And so besides sort of influencing. The architecture and how that happens in terms of our children's brain.

Early life experiences can have other lifelong effects in terms of our children's br um, sort of brain development. And there has been a huge amount, a large amount of sort of scientific evidence and it's mounting an that actually indicates that these life experiences not only impact how the brain develops.

from an epigenetic perspective, it actually affects the gene expression. So let me try and explain this as best as I can. So we are born with a genetic makeup. Genes are almost like our blueprint in terms of our eye color and our complexion, our height, our hair, all of these things. That's the sort of the absolute nature part, but what we know now, , and maybe that's another episode that we can go into a bit more detail, is this notion about epigenetics is that not only can we we, that we can actually change the way that those genes are expressed.

Through our experiences in life, and I guess at the easiest route is trying to think about it on the basis that, that our genes will give us some form of expression, like a light switch, but our environment will then determine whether that switch goes on or off, and then we'll add, will adapt and kind of modify how we live, how we then affect it affects other things.

And so that is why when we talk. Or we see a lot of research evidence around identical twins. Well, identical twins share a hundred percent of their genetic makeup. They are completely, that's what, that's why they're identical. Non-identical twins share the same genetic makeup as they would do with any other sibling.

They just happen to have been. Present together and are born together. So what we know is that even with identical twins that share a hundred percent of their genetic makeup is how they experience the world, their environment, their nurture. Impacts their brain development. So they don't, they're not identical in every other aspect.

Their brain doesn't develop it identically because how they experience aspects of their life has an impact on then how the brain adapts and changes and interacts. So it's really crucial to understand this notion that it's a combination of nature and nurture, and that's a crucial part for parents who are then concerned.

Around their children's mental health. Maybe your, you've struggled with anxiety a lot as an, as a young child and you are having children and you are concerned about the how that might impact your children. It's this idea that they may have dealt inherent aspects of that genetic makeup, because that's part of, you know, how we replicate his A as as human beings, but it's how that interacts with their environment.

That's crucial and that's what makes it so incredibly powerful, this understanding. About brain development and neuroplasticity is that if we can be aware and really conscious in those early years, but then beyond those early years, that it's the input that our children get in terms of their environment that will impact how those genes are expressed and potentially could alter the way that the genes are expressed already.

That can be really powerful. And I say that because I say that because it's a positive thing. It's not a negative thing, isn't something we should be worried about. It empowers us. It means that we can truly help our children make different experiences. But for me what's crucial about that is it might fundamentally change how you parent or some of the things that you are exposed to.

So for example, if we think. , the input that our children are getting through that nurture side is, you know, what, what, what's your child watching? What's your child listening to? What are they surrounded by? Because that's the critical mass around the input that they're getting. In terms of input to that brain development.

So it's really thinking about, you know, what is that input, you know, is there input very much around sort of negative scaremongering worrying things or are we managing to input lots around being grateful? Lots about being happy. Which is why when we talk about this practice of gratitude, why it's so crucial, because it's that input, that's what's going into your child.

So it's really thinking about nature gives our children a certain aspect, but nurture is the really powerful bit because that happens once our children are born. You know, it's that whole, those neural connections can be made because of what our children experience in terms of their environment. So if we can keep.

You know, if their experiences, if what they live day in, day out and what they, you know, the input. that we can control to some aspect we can't control completely because our children go to school, they make friends, they talk about things. They have access to digital devices that then they stumble on various different contents.

So it's just thinking about as a parent, what can we do in that area? , because I think that that's sort of a crucial thing. So that's, we've talked about the fact that our brains are built through these connections, but they're also, we get these disconnections through pruning if we simply don't use certain connections regularly.

And one of the kind of crucial aspects about that is, you know, our children are born with the ability to discern sounds across all the world's languages when they're very, very young. But what then happens is, is. As they get older, that sort of ability to discern all the different phonetic sounds across all the world's languages diminishes and it becomes very language specific.

So whilst I'm not a massive fan of these sort of critical periods, and if your child doesn't do this by this age, then it's lost because we know with neuroplasticity that we can. We can change, we can adapt, we can modify is those critical periods. Those crucial periods in early childhood are just windows where it's easier.

So children who are raised in multi-language homes then obviously are exposed to the sounds of different languages for longer, and so therefore they find it that whilst their early language development is quite. They don't always, typically, this is very broad brush and not necessarily specific, but children who are growing up in a, in a home where more than two languages are spoken, may then not speak quite as early.

as a child who's being brought up in a family where they're only learning one language, what then happens is when, when they, their language comes, it is more complex because it's obviously across two different languages. Now, that doesn't mean if your child isn't exposed to those phonetic sounds when they're younger, that they're never going to be able to learn a second language or a third or a fourth or a fifth.

Absolutely not. It just simply means that the older we become, the more difficult it is. I'm 53. I could still. A new language without any issues whatsoever. It just means I'm gonna have to put more work into it than a two year old, than an eight year old, than a 15 year old. So it's about remembering this idea that brains are built through connections and disconnections, nature and nurture influence the developing brain.

It. It together. As such, we're born with a certain amount of expression, but the environment creates the rest. The third one, which I've touched on already, is this idea that the brain's capacity for change will decrease with age, but it is not. Like a cutoff. You don't reach a certain age and it's like uhuh, it switched off.

Now nothing can change. The brain matures at around 23 to 25 years of age, which is why we often get these sort of challenging conflicts with our teens. And it's the prefrontal cortex. So that bits at the front, which deals with problem solving, rational thinking, um, all of these sorts of things, weighing up pros and cons.

the last to develop. Um, but new connections can still be made. They're just slower than they would be earlier on. And obviously around that time when we're having that final redevelopment around the ages of between 11 and 23 and 25 is we're getting a lot of this synaptic pruning. We're getting a lot of these connections which haven't been used then becoming to be disconnected.

So it doesn't. That new connections can't be formed. We just know that we have more optimal times, in which case in which those connections can be made. And it is through those early formative years. In that sort of naught to five is generally where a lot of those, um, early. Sort of experiences can have a real impact in terms of brain development, but that can go on well through even at 53.

And there's been lots of research evidence that has suggested actually as we get older, one of the ways that we can keep our brain active and healthy is by giving ourselves new, experiencing, learning new things, and we can keep that active and that brain as as plastic as possible. So that it is constantly learning and acquiring new skills.

Whether it's my daily wordle, dunno if you do it, but I do wordle every single, every single day. Whether it's that, whether it's learning a new skill is just so important because it keeps that neuroplasticity going well beyond that childhood and keeps us. In lots of ways keeps our brain young. So it's being able to, we're not gonna get hung up about this.

If you're listening to this and you've got an eight year old, a 13 year old, a 19 year old, a 20 year old, you're thinking, oh my goodness, me, I've, you know, it's too late. It's never too late. You just have to remember that if we're looking at rewiring something, sometimes we have to unravel things. So when we're looking at new habits, when we're looking at new skills, it just takes longer.

But what I think is so crucial is it helps us understand that if I want to, I don't know, maybe I've got an a, a messy 22 year old, and we're trying to get them to be more organized. We have to learn that, that the neurons that wire together fire together. So those habits are entrenched. So what we need to understand is that we need to break that habit before we and then create a new one.

We're doing two things at the same time. , you know, rather than them constantly taking the path that has been most traveled, we're trying to kind of steer them in a different direction to walk a new path, and that's gonna take a while before it develops and matures and becomes one that they can walk quite regularly.

So it just means, I think it helps us be a little bit more compassionate to ourselves when we're trying to learn new things, but also a bit more compassionate when our children, because we can then understand it isn't going to be an overnight thing. It isn't something that's going to be quick. It will take time, and then it helps us, remind us to keep praising and focusing on the reward around the process.

Because that, in essence is what we're doing because over time that will happen. And that's what we talk about when we talk about growth and uh, mindset. It is this notion that when you're practicing these things in the same way as if you were, you know, picking up weights in order of building definition in your muscles, you're building up the weights to build definition and connections within your brain.

and that's why that's such a great analogy for children and helping them understand that every time they do something, you know, the connections are being made and being made. And obviously when our children are younger, those connections can be made much more quickly. You know, it may be in a number of weeks as they get older, that then becomes a number of months.

So it's just remembering that that whilst the capacity for change decreases with age, it just requires more. So the first three before we do the last one is that brains are built through connections and disconnections. Nature and nurture influence the developing brain. The third is the brain's capacity for change decreases with age, but never stops.

The final one is this idea that toxic stress ultimately damages and impacts the architecture, how these connections are formed. So what we know is that differences in early life, experie. , an early childhood can result in differences in terms of brain structure. So children who are, who grow up in extreme poverty, there is been some evidence to suggest that they've got lower gray matter, not only in volume, but also in terms of their academic achievement.

Children who experience early neglect tend to. less well in cognitive abilities and that it can affect the way that the white matter within your brain is organized and that the, you know, the functioning around that prefrontal cortex and it can impact emotional development. And so what's crucial to this, you know, when you are listening to this, the reality is if you are an educator, then it's really important to understand that those early childhood experiences and how that might impact that child's.

To learning readily in those moments. But it also means that we can significantly change these. And if you are a parent listening to this, it's not necess, you are not necessarily, your child's not necessarily going to be experiencing toxic stress all the time, but they may be experiencing chronic stress.

And chronic stress is more of this insig. Little bits of stress constantly. If you've got a child who worries, if you've got a child who doesn't feel very confident the way they appraise a particular situation, or look at a particular situation, remember my Seesaw analogy that I use a lot. The way that they perceive those situations is going to impact how those connections are made, because what's going to happen is they're probably more likely to tune into the aspects.

Affirm their concern about a situation. So it's being aware that that will be impacting those connections and then it's helping them. Learn new ways of coping. Look at new ways of data input, because if their input, particularly around the chatter, you know, we're talking about brain development in terms of what they see in their environment, but don't forget how other people interact with them is only one piece.

How they interact with themselves in terms of the internal chatter, their internal dialogue, what they keep saying to themselves about their experience of life is as profound, if not more in my view, than what somebody else says to them. Because what somebody else says to them is often much less, there's much less volume of.

But we live with the chatter in our head constantly, and that's why it's so important that we talk to our children about their internal dialogue. It's so important that we help them understand that our thoughts are not truths. And that how that impacts the choices that we make because those thoughts impact how we feel, which then impact the behavior that we have, which then feeds right into this, how our brain becomes wire and.

So let me just recap those four. So the first one is that brains are built through connections and disconnections. The second is that nature and nurture influence the developing brain. The third is the brain's capacity for change does decrease with age, but doesn't stop. And then the fourth one is this idea about.

The toxic stress damages that brain development and isn't just not, isn't necessary toxic stress in terms of early childhood experiences of huge adversity. It's also that kind of chronic stress that comes from that internal dialogue. And that is powerful because it helps us be able to help our children to make those changes.

So I really hope you found that helpful and what I would love, cuz it will help me in inform me really. , what other areas of sort of these wiring and our children's brain development you might want me to do more of is if you can just sort of message us and let us know it's contact at Dr. Maryann. If you've got any thoughts, if you've got any questions, if you're thinking, oh gosh, okay, that's really interesting.

I'd love to know more about that. It will help sort of decide what, what we do next with this notion of neuroplasticity in children's brain development. So my give this week is going to be these four headings cuz it helps you have a think. in those four areas, what could I be looking at impacting in terms of for my child?

And it's also a really useful reminder. So as usual, head over to my free resource library, which is dr Mary hand.com/library, where you'll find the link to download not only this week's resource, but also the resources across all my podcast episodes. All you need to do is pop in your email address and you'll get instant access across all of the.

As ever. If you have enjoyed this episode, I would be so very grateful if you could review and follow this podcast so that others can find us and we can spread the love. So until next time.

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