Developmental Brain Plasticity in Humans

brain plasticity

Human development and plastic have little in common, yet they are both malleable. Developmental plasticity in humans refers to the ability to adapt to information, environmental or physical changes. When you learn new things, compensate for physical problems or speak a foreign language fluently, you are relying on your brain’s innate plasticity, which is most apparent during childhood.

Your Brain Is Plastic

All human brains have the trait of plasticity, the ability to adapt to changes large and small. Studies have shown that the brain changes when you lose parts of your body, including parts of your brain. The brain, essentially a “map” of skills, rearranges itself when that map is no longer adequate. For example, a child born with epilepsy might undergo brain surgery that removes one hemisphere of the brain. While this prevents seizures, it also takes away half of a child’s brain. But when scientists observe the remaining hemisphere of that half-brained child, they find that many of the skills on the map of the removed hemisphere appear on the remaining hemisphere, where they shouldn’t lie. Your brain has the ability to spontaneously self-organize in a way that helps you through life.

Language Plasticity: Why Your Kid Learns Languages Faster Than You

Linguists and neuroscientists working together have solidified much evidence for a theory called “universal grammar.” This theory states that a human brain contains the basics to learn the grammar of any language. If you doubt this theory , just trade your newborn for one in China. Visit him in a few years and see if he’s speaking English or Chinese. But this type of plasticity has implications in parenting. For example, a determined mother might wonder, “Could I expose my child to many languages and have her be multilingual just from an innate understanding of grammar?” The short answer is, “Yes, but you’d better be quick.” In terms of language, scientists have discovered that plasticity wears off with age. For many children, that age is around 12, at which time learning new languages and speaking them fluently is no longer easy.

Critical Periods: You Might Have Missed Out, But Your Child Won’t

Time restrictions on developmental plasticity, such as that on becoming fluent in a language, are called critical periods. A critical period is the time limit a child has to learn a specific trait or to fix a specific defect. For most, the importance of this idea lies in fixing defects. If you let small defects, such as speech impediments, slide, they might become lifelong habits. More serious defects, such as muscle problems or visual problems, could also have critical periods. Hence discovering a child’s possible problems early on is better, as this gives doctors or therapists sufficient time to fix these defects.

The Context of Plasticity: How Your Child Truly Learns

Th e average parent can use the scientific notion of developmental plasticity to her child’s advantage. Most learning takes place through a “plastic” concept: you expose yourself to new situations and internalize the important aspects of the situation. To expose yourself to new situations is to change your adult self. That is, as a youngster, you have infinite potentials, but you only reach one real result. This concept of plastic learning is important for kids who wish to go down a certain path. Much of it is controlledby parents, who have more leeway in structuring a child’s life. For example, a parent who expects her child to be responsible should be constantly exposing her child to activities that require a sense of responsibility. Likewise, a parent who wants a math-genius ought to often engage her child in math, such as by assigning family math homework assignments for extra allowance.

The future of research on developmental plasticity could give parents even more ways to “mold” their children into certain potentials. But in the meantime, parents should be aware of both the benefits and limitations of developmental plasticity. When you understand how developmental plasticity works, you can prevent problems and enhance the abilities of your child.

  • Jim Harris

    This is a favorite topic of mine. And it’s encouraging that they are finding some plasticity in our aging brains.

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