The Parenting Instinct: It’s Wired in the Brain

Can a parent’s instinct be measured? Is it something you learn or something that’s ‘wired in’?

With only a few days until the Brain Power Conference we’ll be spending a lot of time learning about how a child’s brain develops – and show that a parent’s interactions with a child have a major impact on cognitive development. But what about the parent’s brain?

Researchers from The National Institute of Health along with scientists from Germany, Japan and, Italy have shown that the ‘parenting instinct’ is actually a specific response wired into our brains.

Image: Science Daily

Science daily reports on a study involving adults, who currently have no children of their own, who had FMRIs (brain scans) while being shown pictures of infants, adult humans and, both adult and baby animals.

The results were enlightening: participants showed significantly more brain activity while viewing the faces of human infants than they did from adult or animal faces.

Marc H. Bornstein from Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said that “These adults have no children of their own. Yet images of a baby’s face triggered what we think might be a deeply embedded response to reach out and care for that child”

The participants did not move or speak while undergoing the FMRI. The areas of the brain that lit up were indicative of how the brain looks when a person is about to care for an infant, showing that caregiver impulses are in fact physiological. The study reported that the areas of the brain were activated included:

“Premotor and preverbal activity — The researchers documented increased activity in the premotor cortex and the supplemental motor area, which are regions of the brain directly under the crown of the head. These regions orchestrate brain impulses preceding speech and movement but before movement takes place.

Facial recognition — Activity in the fusiform gyrus — on each side of the brain, about where the ears are — is associated with processing of information about faces. Activity the researchers detected in the fusiform gyrus may indicate heightened attention to the movement and expressions on an infant’s face, the researchers said.

Emotion and reward — Activity deep in the brain areas known as the insula and the cingulate cortex indicated emotional arousal, empathy, attachment and feelings linked to motivation and reward, the researchers said. Other studies have documented a similar pattern of activity in the brains of parents responding to their own infants.”

The research finally shows that the ‘parenting impulse’ isn’t just activated when a person has a child of their own, but are innate to the human brain. Further research in this area can not only help parents better understand their feelings but may also bring about new insight into why some parents can be neglectful or abusive, perhaps saving a child in the process.

Brain Power Conference: The Start of Something Great!

Dr. Moreno Warms Up the Crowd On Day One (Image: TVOParent)

The Brain Power Conference is over – but the energy and commitment has just begun.

We took a few days to recover from the whirlwind of keynote presentations and workshops….and although sometimes after a big event you move right on to the next thing, in this case we find ourselves energized by the e-mails, comments and feedback.

The Brain Power Conference seemed to have touched the right notes (pardon the music reference!) with many in the audience. It seemed as if the idea that neuroscience could inform a new generation of experiences and curricula for kids isn’t so far-fetched after all!

Who knew that words like neuroplasticity, executive function, and fMRI might become part of the conversation in the teacher’s lounge or at the playground?

We still have lots of work to do. In the coming weeks, we’ll post as many materials and highlights as we can to help summarize what we all heard and learned.

In the meantime, if you have specific requests or suggestions please comment below – we’d love to hear from you and to continue the discussion. And thank you for your support and interest in the Brain Power Initiative.

Brain World Magazine: The Magic of Neuroeducation

Brain World Magazine had an unexpected and delightful post previewing the Brain Power Conference this week – and it’s worth a read, especially if you’re planning to attend.

We have such a jam-packed schedule of keynote presentations and workshops  - and to be honest, it can be hard to summarize what to expect! Should parents expect a lot of science? Will they leave the conference with practical tips and insight?

Brain World assures us that there’s something for everyone and they even quoted me better than I can quote myself! Have a read, and check out the full article.

The Brain Power Conference in Toronto was put together by a cross-disciplinary group of teachers, neuroscientists, psychologists and parents. Thompson believes that we’re starting to see practical ways that neuroscience will inform a revolution in childhood development and assures that the participants in this year’s conference will:

  • Learn how a child remembers and how memory works and help them study
  • Understand the impact of music, language on cognitive function – and why it can have such a big effect on IQ, memory and attention
  • Understand how schools will start to bring neuroscience into the classroom (we have some great panels on the long-term impact on education)

Brain Power Conference: Music Makes Kids Smarter

Studies have shown that learning an instrument can have a direct impact on intelligence, attention, and memory and has a pass-along effect on things like learning math or language.

How music impacts a child’s brain development will be one of the key themes at the upcoming Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto.

Whether music makes kids smarter and what parents and teachers can do with that knowledge are some of the highlights of what attendees will learn:

Can a child’s brain be changed?

Conference chair Dr. Sylvain Moreno will explore how a child’s brain grows and develops. He’ll explain the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ and he’ll give parents and teachers and understanding of what to watch for as a child’s brain grows and changes.

He’ll also explain why music matters – and how learning music isn’t just about acquiring a skill, but activates pathways in the brain that lead to increased intelligence and memory.

Music in the Classroom

Angela Elster and Dr. Gavin Bidelman will present findings from a study of over 400,000 students on the impact of music and arts in the classroom. They’ll explore the educational findings through the lens of neuroscience – and indirectly make a case that schools who cut music or arts programs are doing children’s brains a disservice!

Creating Creative Thinkers Through Music

Steven Couldridge of Yamaha Music Canada will lead a fun and interactive workshop highlighting a unique approach to the development of creative musical skills through age-appropriate education, group learning, and an emphasis on improvisation and creativity. What’s good for the spirit is good for the brain!

Why Music is Good for a Child’s Brain

Today’s Parent recently gave a good summary of why music is good for the brain: they called music “an all-in-one workout machine in the weight room of your kid’s brain.” The result of the musical workout? Improved IQ.

Read the background article if you want to understand some of the key topics to be presented at the Brain Power Conference!

And please join us in Toronto on May 3-4 for an exploration of a child’s brain, the impact of music (amongst dozens of other topics) and how you can help a kid develop and grow. Promo rates are still available although space is limited.

5 Questions About Your Child’s Brain…and Other Lessons from the Mompreneurs

Parents often know by instinct the things that engage their child’s mind. They know about the power of music or language.

So the Brain Power Conference is the perfect fit to help parents translate that knowledge into action.

We hit the road on Sunday, meeting with parents and ‘mompreneurs’ at an event in Vaughan. It was a really great day – meeting with moms who also run their own businesses was inspiring: if you think raising a child is a full-time job, these moms raise their kids AND their businesses!

Marty Keltz Presents at Mompreneur Event

We were lucky enough to be joined by Marty Keltz, a keynote presenter at the Brain Power Conference and creator of the Magic School Bus TV show.

He gave remarks to the audience and commented that “helping a kid’s brain doesn’t need to be at the expense of creating entertainment. You can engage your child and still have a positive impact on their mind.”

Questions and Answers
One of the great things about being out meeting with parents was giving them the highlights of the upcoming Brain Power Conference and answering the question: what’s in it for me?

We thought we’d share our “top 5″ list of things that parents can take away if they attend the Brain Power Conference:

1. Understand How Different Parts of the Brain Grow and Develop
You’ve seen your child learn her first words. You’ve watched him learn his ABC’s or struggle to stack up blocks before knocking them all down again.

But what’s going on in your child’s brain? The conference will highlight how different parts of the brain develop as a child gets older – and by understanding that, help you to understand what kinds of toys or activities are best suited to different ages and stages of childhood development.

2. What’s In a School?
Choosing a school for your child can be one of the toughest choices a parent makes. What age should you enrol them in nursery school? What kind of curricula should a school offer? The conference will offer practical tips and insights and give parents the tools they need to support active dialogue with their child’s teachers.

3. Study Hard, Study Often?
It turns out that neuroscience teaches us a lot about how a child remembers – and that some of the ‘conventional wisdom’ on studying and excelling in class is wrong. Workshops at the conference will explore practical ways you can help a child to study and remember – and even increase their IQ!

2. The Structure of Reward
What role does ‘achievement’ play in a child’s development? How does positive reinforcement or reward play in helping a child’s brain to develop? It turns out there are myths and there is science that sheds insight into how a parent can encourage the right level of structure in a child’s play, and the right level of reward as they learn.

5. The Experts Don’t Have All the Answers
The Brain Power Conference brings together some of the world’s top experts on the brain, on education, on psychology and parenting. But they don’t have all the answers – a lot still rests on the school system or culture a child grows up in. But, by learning about how a child’s brain grows and develops and how a parent can help increase the capacity to learn it helps put perspective on the things a parent or teacher can or should worry about.


It was exciting to learn how many ‘Mompreneurs’ and parents plan to attend the Brain Power Conference. We hope you’ll join us too, for two days that will explore the above topics and many more: and give you practical insight into how you can increase your child’s capacity to learn.

(And for those who attended the conference – don’t hesitate to get in touch if you didn’t pick up our special discount promo code! Just e-mail us at

New York Times: The Bilingual Advantage and the Efficient Brain

Switching back-and-forth between languages is like a workout for the brain reports the New York Times, which explores how research is exploring why bilingualism might be a big advantage in a child’s cognitive development.

Much like learning music, it turns out that bilingualism plays, well, a dual purpose: giving kids the advantages of knowing a second language but also better preparing their brains for learning.

Having a bilingual brain means that there are often two language systems working concurrently. This can help hone the brain to suppress unneeded information and ‘train’ the brain to run more efficiently. Not only do the brains of bilingual kids weed out irrelevant information but they’re also tend to monitor there environment more effectively, this is especially true for children whom must switch languages briskly.

Image from New York Times

Why Bilingual Brains are More Efficient
“Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says researcher Albert Costa of the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain.

“It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.”

In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.”

The Times also reports on research by Dr. Ellen Bialystok who will be a keynote presenter at the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4.

“In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.”

Setting the Stage for Lifelong Cognitive Fitness
The benefits of being bilingual are not spent entirely on children. Research from The University of California, San Diego details the effect of bilingualism on the elderly as well. Bilingual adults are showing increased resistance to Alzheimer’s disease, the more proficient in language skills a person is the later Alzheimer’s onsets.

Join us at the Brain Power Conference as these and other issues are explained and explored with practical tips for parents and teachers on how the findings of neuroscience can give every child a leg-up on lifelong learning.

Touch and the Autistic Child: The Brain Explains

The simple challenge of hugging the autistic child can leave parents bewildered and frustrated, but by understanding a child’s brain parents might find new ways to cope.

Martha Kaiser, a neuroscientist from Yale, explains that new research shows that “the brains of people high in autistic traits aren’t coding touch as socially relevant.”

She explains that there’s a part of the brain, called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), that makes these kids sensitive to touch. “The OFC is very important for coding reward so maybe they’re feeling the touch but in these individuals, their brains don’t code that type of touch as being as rewarding as in individuals with fewer autistic traits.”

The findings are reported in a Time Magazine article:

Yale neuroscientists recruited 19 young adults and imaged their brain activity as a researcher lightly brushed them on the forearm with a soft watercolor paintbrush. In some cases, the brushing was quick, and in others slow: prior studies have shown that most people like slow brushing and perceive it as affectionate contact, while the faster version is felt as less pleasant and more tickle-like. None of the participants in the current study had autism, but the researchers evaluated them for autistic traits — things like a preference for sameness, order and systems, rather than social interaction. They found that participants with the highest levels of autistic traits had a lower response in key social brain regions — the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) — to the slow brushing.

According to Martha Kaiser, senior author of the study and associate director of the Child Neuroscience Laboratory at the Yale Child Study Center, the STS is a critical hub of the social brain. “This region is important for perceiving the people around us, for visual social stimuli and for perceiving social versus nonsocial sounds,” she says. The current findings suggest that the region is also involved in processing social touch and that its response is linked to the individual’s social ability, she says. The OFC, in contrast, helps the brain evaluate experiences — whether something is likely to be good or bad and if it involves pleasure or pain.

The ability to be physically involved with a child can be an extremely helpful tool when it comes to teaching and parenting. Researchers are currently working on ways to help autistic children respond more favorably to touch. If introduced early on these methods could have a positive impact on a child’s life and education.


Today’s Parent: Music Can Make Your Kids Smarter

Learning to play music can make your kids smarter reports Today’s Parent, who explain that musical ability is connected to improved ability in math, language and more. The Chair of the Brain Power Conference, Dr Sylvain Moreno, explains:

“Listening will do nothing for the brain,” says Sylvain Moreno, the world-renowned neuroscientist and leading researcher at Baycrest, a cognitive neuroscience and memory research centre affiliated with the University of Toronto.  “You have to be in a kind of interaction with music.”

The award-winning Moreno’s ongoing research into how music affects a child’s cognitive skills has so far come to one overwhelming conclusion: When children engage with music — actively play or study — their cognitive skills are strengthened.

Music and Child's Brain

Photo: Today's Parent, James Tse

The article calls music “an all-in-one workout machine in the weight room of your kid’s brain.” The result of the musical workout? Improved IQ:

The effect was quick. Verbal IQ scores in the children who participated were consistently higher than before — more than 90 percent of the kids showed improvement.

The notion that music can improve something as seemingly unrelated as language skills suggests remarkable things about our kids’ brains.

Second, unlike the music lessons referenced by folks like Schellenberg and Hyde, games like this could potentially bring these cognitive benefits to a wider audience — kids whose parents can’t afford lessons, or for kids who don’t like them.

Dr. Moreno will present his research at the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto and joins other researchers and experts to help explain what it all means to parents and teachers.

From the Lab to the Play and Classroom: How Brain Imaging Is Helping Kids

University of CaliforniaNeuroeducation holds the promise of a revolution in childhood development: by understanding how the brain grows and develops, we can figure out how to help prepare a child to learn.

But the promise of neuroeducation has only become possible because of advances in our ability to look inside the brain. The scientists at The University of California are using it to their advantage.

“It’s not that we’re going to scan every child’s brain and determine from there what kind of intervention or class they should be placed into,” says Silvia Bunge, a professor at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley. “It’s more a proof-of-concept line of research. Showing that, what do you know, after a few months of a specific training we can see – we can measure – changes in the child’s brain structure and or brain functioning.”

Using Games To Impact the Brain

Researchers at UC are using games to better educate children in early concepts and skills including geometry, fractions, reasoning and processing skills. The children involved were also given brain scans showing a correlation between brain development and intellectual ability.

“In another study, she found that 25 percent of children, when given a task dealing with weights and balances, performed at an adult level while 25 percent of adults performed at a child’s level. She says by itself this is a fascinating bit of trivia. However, using neuroimaging, she discovered that performing at different levels was directly linked to different brain networks, regardless of whether it was a child or an adult. Not only does this show that a different brain system is used for advanced reasoning, it allows Rivera to pinpoint the moment of mastery.”

Helping Kids Who Need Help

Neuroimaging is not stopping at education; brain scans are also being conducted to better understand mental illness and deficiencies

“We’re beginning to get a handle on why kids with ADHD think it’s such a great idea to throw a spitball in classroom even if they know they’re going to get in trouble later.” says Steve Hinshaw, psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Neuroimaging techniques have shown that maybe the core, underlying deficit isn’t just that you don’t pay attention but that you value immediate reward far more than long-term consequences.”

The Brain Power Conference, being held May 3-4 in Toronto, will explore all of these issues and more. The conference will bring leading neuroscientists together with teachers, parents, and professionals to answer the question: as we continue to better understand how the brain works, what does it mean for parents and teachers?

Selfish Child, Selfish Brain? It May Be Built In

Every parent has witnessed their little ones being selfish at least once, but it turns out they may be ‘wired’ that way! It turns out that selfish behaviour can be blamed, in part, on an underdeveloped region of the brain.

LiveScience reports on a new study suggesting that this could in fact be the case. The study was conducted at the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. During the study 146 children paired off and played two different games with each other:

In the study, 146 children participated in two games, played in pairs. In the “Dictator Game,” one child offered to share a reward, and another child could only accept what was offered. In the “Ultimatum Game,” one child could propose sharing the reward, but the other child could accept or reject the offer. If the child rejected the offer, neither child received a reward.

As was expected older children were more generous than their younger counterparts inferring that impulse control matured with the child. Brain scans were conducted on on both children and adults involved in the study that showed “a region called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located in the left side of the brain, toward the front, was more developed in adults. The area is considered to be involved with impulse control.”

LiveScience reports that “the results suggest that selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair’, but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.”

Understanding how a child’s brain works is the topic of the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. But just as important as understanding it is giving tools and insights to parents to know how to help their kid’s learn and grow – and when not to worry because sometimes a selfish act is all in the mind!