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.

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.


What babies can teach us: Exploring the Cognitive Development of Children

Understanding how babies learn and remember can give clues to how they’ll develop in the long-term – and may lead to tests that can help parents and teachers help a child to learn and develop.

Babies hold lots of lessons for researchers at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM). Some of the findings might not be a surprise – but others shed light on how a baby’s brain grows in the first year.

“Babies have better memory than most people expect,” Woods said. “And the older they get, the better they are at remembering things.”

The researchers have also learned that babies:

  • Learn better if someone shows them an object before handing it to them them;
  • Learn very quickly about the stability of objects;
  • Learn better about the colour and pattern to toys through touching not just by looking.

MSUM is examining the connection between babies’ ability to perceive depth and the development of their eye-movement systems. What has been shown in adults is that those with eye movement deficits have trouble with depth perception.

“The question is, how do those two things develop together? What we hope to get out of this research in the future is perhaps a diagnostically relevant test that will show what babies might be at risk very early on for developing this depth-perception deficit based on their eye movement problems,” said Lisa Nawrot.

The research involves watching how babies react to things. At the Infant Cognitive Development Lab at NDSU, babies’ cognitive abilities related to attention and memory are being studied. At the Child Development Lab at MSUM, the visual perception of two- to five-month-olds is being studied.

Most of the research undertaken by NDSU looks at the ability of babies to determine whether an object is the same or different from one they just saw. Babies initially play with toys in a play area. This is followed by watching events that seem like magic such as a ball that seems to change colours as it disappears behind screen. When babies are surprised, they tend to watch longer. The researchers measure how long a baby looks at the tricks.

“We get really long looking times only if babies understand that there are two objects,” said Rebecca Woods who is with NDSU. “A lot of what we do here is try to find out how they start to learn,” said Woods.

Babies are shown a series of black-and-white dots that move across the screen. When stared at, people with normal eye movements see a simple shape pop out. Using an infrared eye tracker, researchers watch the babies watch the shapes repeatedly. When babies become bored, the stimulus is changed. Babies noticing the depth change respond by becoming interested in the object again.

“If they’re sucking on a pacifier, sometimes it will drop right out of their mouths,” Nawrot said. “It’s really a startling response.”

The project is about half-way finished.

The Brain Power Conference will share the latest research into a child’s brain and explain to parents and teachers what it means for childhood development and lifelong learning. We hope you’ll join us for this landmark event.

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!