Brain Development and Learning

Paul J. Eslinger

There is an exquisite synchrony between how the brain develops and what shapes its growth and maturation. It is evident from early infancy that the structure and connections of the brain are indeed sculpted by a number of environmental and biological influences. As the center for thought, emotion, actions-plans and self-regulation of mind and body, the brain undergoes a slow protracted growth process that actually is life-long. It is most intense in the first few years of life, rising rapidly throughout childhood into adolescence and early adulthood, and continues with different phases of growth and change throughout adult life.

What this tells us about the influence of early experiences is that they can have a profound impact upon the subsequent potential of each person. It is in the first year of life that the basic soundscape of one’s native language becomes mapped in the nervous system, providing the phonemic elements that evolve into language. Other languages can be acquired at the same time with much less effort than at later ages. Parents generally play the most prominent role of educators in these early years, which are being recognized as critical to subsequent brain and cognitive development.

There are two novel ideas emerging from research on cognition and brain development that may provide new directions for educational planning and implementation. Two of these ideas, Multiple Memory Systems and Executive Functions, will be briefly described.

The human brain has remarkable plasticity, the ability to be shaped and modified by growth of new and more complex connections among cells. Some neurons develop up to 50,000 connections, a mind-boggling number when one considers there are billions of neurons in the brain. The basic property of the cerebral cortex (the external layers or convolutions of the brain) is to store information. Although we do not understand exactly how such storage occurs, it is clear that it takes place in multiple cortical areas that are dedicated to different kinds of memory. Some areas are developed into knowledge systems that emerge from language, visual-spatial, or motor memories. Other regions of the brain store information for emotional experiences and for larger memory units, such as knowing how to complete a home assignment or securing a teaching position. Therefore, learning and memory are not limited to a single neural system or a single process. There are multiple memory systems spread out in different brain areas, with pathways that can interconnect them in diverse and even individual ways.

There are multiple memory systems spread out in different brain areas.

Because learning and memory abilities are generally not fully developed in all of these areas, educational approaches that use multiple memory systems lead to more in-depth knowledge and higher retention. For example, teaching materials that use visual and personal analogies, visual schematics showing how verbal concepts spatially relate to each other, and activities that implement problem-solving steps provide opportunities for multiple memory system involvement. Students who are weaker in one memory-processing stream may then readily compensate when other processing modes are available.

Executive function is another recently formulated neuropsychological concept. An executor is charged with responsibilities, such as surveying information, imposing organization, formulating plans, setting goals, keeping track of changing circumstances, and even anticipating numerous possibilities and modifying goals and plans accordingly. In neuropsychological studies, executive functions have been shown to be very different from general intelligence and memory.

The young child is a budding executor of their own knowledge, emotions, and behavior. Those areas of the brain that provide executive functions are the last to mature, usually not until early adulthood. During development, executive functions become progressively interconnected with the knowledge domains for facts, figures, words and images (the “what” and “where aspects of knowledge) for purposes of how, why and when utilize such knowledge for goal-directed purposes. For example, how do I identify and organize the steps for completing and independent project? Why is this information related to that information? When do I self-check my progress in order to evaluate how much I have left to do? These are questions educators may hear from time to time, but such questions reveal what may be fundamental processes for human adaptation and achievement – managing ourselves as learners, developing awareness of our knowledge as well as lack of knowledge, and knowing how to accomplish various goals by using executive or metacognitive skills. A substantial part of executive functions is developing the mental models of these “how,” “why,” and “when” processes.

The earliest elements of executive functions begin in parent-child interactions.

Executive functions are shaped by many educational influences and comprise a set of skills and knowledge. Can executive functions be taught in any direct fashion? The answer is yes. The earliest elements of executive functions begin in parent-child interactions, expand greatly in play, and are thought to blossom in more independent and complex academic, social and recreational activities. Children become as effective a personal executor as they are challenged and trained to be. Executive function skills have been incorporated into writing, reading, and mathematical courses, emphasizing specific strategies for learning, implementing self-instructional steps, and promoting collaborative as well as independent practice. Such approaches facilitate the acquisition of self-regulatory skills that help a child learn, organize, and meet goals, not only within school but also throughout life.

Parents, educators and neuroscientists can begin a dialogue about how to further understand and utilize multiple memory systems, and how to introduce multiple language soundscapes in early life, and how to foster development of elementary and advanced executive functions in each child. With such collaboration, it may be possible to achieve a more successful combination of knowledge acquisition and utilization and a broader range of skills for each child’s adaptation and achievement throughout life.

The Author

Dr. Paul J. Eslinger Developmental Pediatrics and Learning Penn State College of Medicine
Reproduced by author´s courtesy
Image: André Malavazzi, Copyright 2000 State University of Campinas, Brazil

Copyright 2003 Paul J. Eslinger
All rights reserved. Reproduction in all forms is forbidden
Brain & Mind Magazine 17 (May-August 2003)
An initiative:
Center for Biomedical Informatics
State University of Campinas, Brazil
First Published 25.May.2003