Although the human brain begins forming early during prenatal life, just three weeks after conception, in essence, brain development is a lifelong project. That is because the same events that shape the brain during development are also responsible for storing information—new skills and memories—throughout life. The major difference between brain development in a child versus an adult is a matter of degree: the brain is far more plastic (impressionable) in early life than in maturity. This plasticity has both a positive and a negative side. On the positive side, it means a young child’s brain is more open to learning and enriching influences. On the negative side, it also means that a young child’s brains is more vulnerable to developmental problems.
Even though we are born with all the neural cells we’ll ever need, they are small and mostly unconnected to the different parts of the brain. Over time, these connections are shaped by our interactions with the world. Through repeated emotionally safe experiences, our neurons communicate to connect to other cells and strengthen important pathways to various parts of the brain.
Before birth, the human brain spends many busy months producing nerve cells and the connections between them. Scientists are increasingly interested in the many factors and processes influencing brain development. By understanding the steps to build a healthy brain, researchers can gain insight into what goes wrong in disorders of brain development and clues about how to repair the brain, following injury. The beauty of the human brain is that while it is a wildly complex organism – it is also incredibly malleable and can change or heal at any time.
The brain develops from back to front and from the inside out. The most primal level resides at the bottom and deals with survival. This is often called the reptilian brain because, in evolutionary terms, it reaches the level of reptile development.
The second tier is the mid-brain and deals with emotion and memory. It contains the amygdala and the hippocampus and is often referred to as the “seat of learning.” The uppermost tier is the higher brain and is involved in decision making. It houses language, the sense of self and the skills required to think, predict, plan and empathize.
Survival Center – (Reptilian brain – brainstem) This area is fully developed at birth and handles basic instincts and functions to sustain life and movement. This area regulates breathing, digestion, heart rate, sleep, hunger, body temperature, etc. and is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response. Infants operate from the survival center and are unable to regulate their own systems
Emotional Center – (Emotional brain – limbic system) The developmental focus is ages during 0-5. This area processes memory, emotions, the response to stress and is responsible for nurturing, caring, separation anxiety, fear, rage, social bonding and hormone control. This area is the seat of our emotions and the focus of development in the early childhood years. Self-expression, communication of needs and reactions to the world are expressed in the form of feelings, and it is all flowing from the mid-brain.
rational thought, problem-solving, planning, attention, creativity, self-awareness, understanding, and interpreting emotion.
Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course. The brain is a highly integrated organ and its multiple functions operate in coordination with one another. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the building blocks for a healthy brain. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important for success in school, the workplace, and in the larger community.
More about Brain Development
Secret Life of the Brain – a PBS special exploring the brain from birth to old age
Additional Resource links