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.

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.


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!

The Atlantic: Kids Are Changing, Neuroplasticity is Real, and Education Needs a Revolution

Image from The Atlantic

Neuroplasticity is ‘real’ reports The Atlantic, and our understanding of how the brain is wired and changes arrives at a time that “multitasking is, indeed, the new norm; that hyperconnectivity may be leading to a lack of patience and concentration; and that an “always on” ethos may be encouraging a culture of expectation and instant gratification.”

Elon University and the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report this week which is generating a lot of discussion online – particularly for its findings on the ways in which Millenials will ‘suffer’ in a hyper-connected age. Says the report:

Analysts generally believe many young people growing up in today’s networked world and counting on the internet as their external brain will be nimble analysts and decision-makers who will do well. But these experts also expect that constantly connected teens and young adults will thirst for instant gratification and often make quick, shallow choices. Where will that leave us in 2020? These survey respondents urge major education reform to emphasize new skills and literacies

The Atlantic points out that perhaps the key to the findings are its implications for what happens in the classroom:

(It was a) matter of general consensus among the experts they surveyed: that our education systems will need to be updated, drastically, to suit the new realities of the intellectual environment. “There is a palpable concern among these experts,” Rainie puts it, “that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies.” As a result: “Many of the experts called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyper-connected lifestyle.”

The report explores the contentious idea that brains are being ‘rewired’ in the face of technological change. Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, notes in the report:

“Throughout human history, human brains have elastically responded to changes in environments, society, and technology by ‘rewiring’ themselves. This is an evolutionary
advantage and a way that human brains are suited to function.”

Susan Price, CEO and chief Web strategist at Firecat Studio and an organizer of TEDx in San Antonio, Texas, is optimistic. “The amazing plasticity of the brain is nowhere as evident in the rapid adaptations humans are making in response to our unprecedented access to electronic information,” she wrote. “Those who bemoan the perceived decline in deep thinking or engagement, face-to-face social skills and dependency on technology fail to appreciate the need to evolve our processes and behaviors to suit the new reality and opportunities. Young people and those who embrace the new connectedness are developing and evolving new standards and skills at a rate unprecedented in our history. Overall, our ability to connect, share and exchange information with other human beings is a strong net positive for humanity.

Not everyone agrees with the concept that brains will evolve or ‘rewire’ because of a hyper-connected age. But what most of the respondents agree to is that a revolution will happen in the classroom.

The entire report makes for provocative reading. Many of these issues will be hot topics, of course, at the upcoming Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. We hope you’ll join us for this two day exploration of a child’s brain and its implications for parenting, teaching, and a life of learning.

You Can’t Always Change a Child’s Mind, But Can You Change Their Brain?

For the past year or so I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with some of the leading scientists in the field of ‘neuroeducation’. These are the neuroscientists, educators, researchers and media developers who are advancing our understanding of how the brain works and what it means for the future of childhood development.

As we head towards the Brain Power Conference in Toronto, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned.

Because to be honest, if you’re a parent or teacher you’re probably reacting a lot like I did when I first learned about this field: talking about neuroscience in the same breath as “preschool” sounds a lot like science fiction.

Or if you imagine a day when how we teach is influenced by what we know about the brain it can seem kind of scary.

If I’m a parent, will I be hooking my kid up to a scanning machine so I can track their brain waves? Will great teaching disappear in the face of ‘neurologically programmed curricula’?

But what I’ve learned over the past year is that we truly are heading towards a revolution in teaching, parenting and childhood development.

It’s a revolution informed by our ability to understand the brain in ways we couldn’t before; by technologies that can make education more fun, engaging, and child-centred; and by a validation that holistic approaches matter – and that the science proves it.

So, What IS Neuroeducation?
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “brain training” it conjures up images of flip cards or computer games. I imagine being drilled with a bunch of math questions or trying to solve a Rubix-cube (and if you’re anything like me, you have a Rubix cube in a drawer somewhere which is the only real solution you could come up with!)

But there’s another term the scientists use: “neuroeducation”.

Maybe it’s ‘brain training’ under a different name, but it maybe gets us a bit closer to what the scientists are really talking about.

And the reason is this: ‘training’ implies that you’re getting a workout, you’re exercising, or you’re sharpening up skills that already exist. But that’s not what the neuroscientists think is possible based on their growing understanding of how the brain works.

The Capacity to Learn May Be As Important As What is Taught
Rather, neuroscience has shown us that it’s possible to change the way the brain itself works. It has shown we can directly impact a child’s capacity to learn – you can “educate the brain”, and by changing the brain you can make a child smarter, more attentive, and more receptive to what they learn.

A neuroscientist gave me the example of a mother who was concerned about their child’s slow acquisition of math skills. It turned out that the child’s brain had not yet established all of the neural connections that allow for focus and attention. It wasn’t that the child couldn’t understand the math, the problem was that the child’s cognitive processes didn’t yet allow the child to pay attention long enough to fully ‘receive’ the math concepts.

Neuroeducation would say that by focusing on developing that part of the brain which facilitates focus and attention, the capacity to learn math (or language or music or art) can be improved.

But Is It Practical?
At the Brain Power Conference we’ve invited some pretty amazing speakers to talk about the brain, childhood development and education. And I won’t steal their thunder – but what’s become clear to me over the past year or so is that ‘neuroeducation’ isn’t just something that scientists dreamed up in a lab – it will have practical, real-world implications.

And what’s also become clear is that ‘neuroeducation’ isn’t in conflict with great parenting or great teaching – in most cases, the science of the brain validates good old-fashioned common sense. It demonstrates that a holistic approach to a child’s development still matters, and things like nutrition or exercise or play don’t suddenly take a back seat to The Brain.

But in other cases, neuroeducation might be upsetting conventional wisdom: how teachers give exams, how a child studies, or how a child is rewarded for achievement are all areas that deserve a second look as we come to understand the mechanisms of a child’s brain.

It may never be possible to change a child’s mind (as far as I know, there’s no magic bullet to suddenly make spinach yummy!) – but as we learn about how we can influence the development of their brain, we might be giving them a head start on a life of learning.

As always, I invite you to the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. We’ve arranged two-days of keynote presentations, small group workshops, hands-on demonstrations and lots of insight into these and other topics – and I hope you’ll join us for this landmark event.

Mother’s support encourages healthy brain development

A new study has shown that mothers who are more supportive of their young children may be encouraging healthy brain development and not just preventing tantrums.

“Parental support, particularly in early childhood, is a very, very powerful force in a child’s life,” says researcher Joan L. Luby, MD, a professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo.

Ninety-two children (preschool to grade school) were followed. The investigators videotaped each parent and child while they completed an experiment called “the waiting task.” This involved giving the child a brightly wrapped present and telling them to wait eight minutes before they could open it. While the children were waiting, their mothers had to fill out a number of forms.

“It really simulates a real-life situation that people often face. You’re cooking dinner and your child is throwing a tantrum, and how do you juggle that?” said Luby.

“The maternal support had to do with how much positive parenting the parent showed: how much they reassured the child, how much they helped regulate the child when the child made bids that they needed that gift,” she said.

The mothers were scored on how well they helped their child through the task.

The children continued to be followed and between the ages of seven and 13, their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging. Researchers were interested in the size of the region of the brain called the hippocampus. It plays a role in memory and how people handle stress. Its size has been linked to stressful life events and severity of depression.

What the findings showed was that among those children (n=51) who had no symptoms of depression as preschoolers, those who received more support from their mothers as they did the waiting task had larger hippocampi in the scans done later on. In non-depressed children who received little or no help in dealing with the stress of waiting, their hippocampi were approximately nine per cent smaller.

“What maternal support is doing in the kids who are not depressed is reducing their exposure to stressors, which is helping them. It’s reducing the impact of stress,” says Ian H. Gotlib, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University. Gotlib studies the biological basis of depression, but was not involved in the research.

“It’s a great study,” says Gotlib, who is also director of the university’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory. “It opens up some really interesting possibilities for intervening.”

In the study, 41 preschooler children had symptoms of depression. In this group, maternal support did not appear to be as helpful. Those receiving high support had smaller hippocampi compared with their non-depressed counterparts. The size was only six per cent smaller.

“Maternal support is helpful in depressed children, but it doesn’t have as powerful an effect because their brain development is being brought down by other forces,” Luby says.

However, that does not mean that children with signs of depression cannot be helped.

“That, to me, just kind of emphasizes how important it is to get these kids treated, or to teach them coping strategies, to do something to reduce those depressive symptoms,” says Gotlib.