American parents embrace the idea that we play an important role in molding our infant’s brains. Good nutrition, exercise, and cognitive stimulation for our babies leads to smarter, better-developed children. At the first signs of pregnancy, we spend millions on toys, music, and devices that stimulate neural connections and improve cognition. We use speakers to pipe Mozart into the uterus, set up black and white mobiles above our babies’ cribs to stimulate their visual systems, and when we have to use formula, we choose formula with DHA to promote myelination. Jean Piaget, a famous Swiss developmental psychologist wryly referred to our culture’s obsession with how to improve our infants’ developmental outcomes as “the American question.” This is our birthright.
What happens to that enthusiasm for building our children’s brain function beyond toddlerhood? Even as neuroscience research has accumulated that demonstrates that our brains can be shaped throughout our lifespan by the same environmental factors that shape infants’ brains, neither psychologists or the public have become similarly focused on influencing brain function and cognitive outcomes in later childhood and beyond. That’s not like us. Rather than focusing on improving brain function, once our children begin school, our focus shifts towards improving brain content. We want our children to acquire skills and information. We abandon the project of creating better functioning brains.
As the data on neuroplasticity (the ability of the environment and experiences to shape the brain throughout life) accumulates, a burgeoning rank of neuropsychologists and neuroscientists are directing our attention to something intrinsically interesting. How can we help people think better, throughout childhood and beyond? Framed another way, how can we improve our school age children’s brain function, not just brain content?
In my next series of blog posts, I will be sharing neuroplasticity research, showing that exercise, diet, and exposure to novel experiences improves our children’s brain function. I will also share the specific strategies that the research suggests: the school age equivalent of hanging black and white mobiles above our children’s cribs.