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What’s Going on in There?

How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

By Lise Eliot
16-minute read
Audio available
What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot

What’s Going on in There? (1999) delves into the cognitive and physiological development of young children. These blinks explain the most important milestones of a child’s development, exploring the shared influence of genes and parenting on children.

  • New parents or parents-to-be
  • Teachers and caregivers curious about infant psychology
  • Anyone who’s ever wondered what babies think about

Lise Eliot is a neuroscientist and professor at the Chicago Medical School. As a writer, she is known for her contributions to the magazine Slate, as well as her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It.

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What’s Going on in There?

How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

By Lise Eliot
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot
Synopsis

What’s Going on in There? (1999) delves into the cognitive and physiological development of young children. These blinks explain the most important milestones of a child’s development, exploring the shared influence of genes and parenting on children.

Key idea 1 of 10

Genetic predisposition and childhood experiences influence an infant’s development.

Picture a ball rolling down a hill. Gravity is pulling the ball downward, but its path might be diverted or changed by a rock or two in its path. Human development works a little like this. The main direction of our development is determined by our genes, but other factors can change the direction of our development, too.

Just 18 weeks after fertilization, the building blocks of a human embryo’s brain are already formed, following a sequence determined by our genes. Our brains begin by first developing the components and capabilities essential to keep us alive, such as controlling our heart rate. More complex components, like those required for imagination and memory, form later on.

Genes also shape the way these different parts of the brain communicate with each other. Neurons connect when our genes cause chemical attractants to be released at the right place and the right time inside our brains.

But after birth, genes aren’t the only factors in human development. Between the ages of one and eight, children produce twice the number of neuronal connections required for healthy brain functionality. Because of this, efficient pathways for cognitive processes must be established, and for their brains to do this, children need nurture.

This need for nurture is critical – if children lack stimulation, the neuronal connections they need for healthy adult life will deteriorate rapidly. This has been known to psychiatrists since the 1940s, when René Spitz conducted an experiment comparing two groups of children.  

Children in the first group had been raised by their mothers in prison, while those in the second group had been taken from their mothers and raised in a nearby nursery. Children who’d grown up in the prison developed normally, thanks to their mothers’ care.

But the children in the nursery, who had been growing up without human contact and intellectually stimulating play, suffered the consequences. Their neuronal connections degenerated, and many developed retardations that impeded their ability to walk and talk by the time they reached the age of three.

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