via Kottke, from the New Yorker on November 17, 2008, a critique of the “brain plasticity” research published in the nineteen-nineties,” with emphasis added to highlight the relationship between self-directed learning and brain development:
This research said that, while the infant brain is, in part, the product of genes, that endowment is just the clay; after birth, it is “sculpted” by the child’s experience, the amount of stimulation he receives, above all in the first three years of life. That finding prompted many programs aimed at stimulating babies whose mothers, for whatever reason (often poverty), seemed likely to neglect them. Social workers drove off to homes deemed at risk, to play with the new baby.
But upper-middle-class parents—and marketers interested in them—also read about the brain-plasticity findings, and figured that, if some stimulation is good, more is better. (Hence Baby Einstein.) Later research has provided no support for this. The conclusion, in general, is that the average baby’s environment provides all the stimuli he or she needs.
Marano thinks that the infant-stimulation craze was a scandal. She accepts the idea of brain plasticity, but she believes that the sculpting goes on for many years past infancy and that its primary arena should be self-stimulation, as the child ventures out into the world. While Mother was driving the kid nuts with the eight-hundredth iteration of “This Little Piggy,” she should have been letting him play on his own.
Marano assembles her own arsenal of neurological research, guaranteed to scare the pants off any hovering parent. As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated, Marano says. “Dendrites sprout. Synapses form.” If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”
Read the rest of this entry »