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Top 10 Q&A about Child’s Brain Development — Brain Health Series Part 1

A child’s brain is a per­fect exam­ple of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: As the child learns basic and com­plex skills, his or her brain changes, con­nec­tions between neu­rons are strength­ened or elim­i­nat­ed.

Here are 10 top ques­tions and answers to explore the devel­op­ing brain and get a bet­ter win­dow on young minds. Fol­low­ing the Q&A find relat­ed rel­e­vant resources (links, doc­u­men­taries, and books) to go fur­ther.


10 questions and answers about a child’s brain development

Q: Does brain devel­op­ment depend only on genes?

A: No, brain devel­op­ment is the result of a com­plex inter­ac­tion between both genes and envi­ron­ment. Brain devel­op­ment begins in utero. Bil­lions of neu­rons are gen­er­at­ed. They migrate from their birth­place in the embryo to their final posi­tions. Axons and den­drites grow and con­nec­tions (synaps­es) between neu­rons are formed. These mech­a­nisms are believed to be hard­wired, that is deter­mined by genet­ics. Once con­nec­tions are formed, activ­i­ty-depen­dent mech­a­nisms come into play. Whether a con­nec­tion is strength­ened or elim­i­nat­ed will be deter­mined by the activ­i­ty of this con­nec­tion, that is, it will depend on the expe­ri­ences of the baby/child.  (Click here for a refresh­er on Brain basics: What is a neu­ron, a synapse, etc.)

An exam­ple of how the envi­ron­ment can influ­ence brain devel­op­ment: Rut­ter et al. (1998) stud­ied Roman­ian orphans brought to Eng­land and adopt­ed before age two (some before 6 months). When assessed on arrival, the babies were shown to be severe­ly devel­op­men­tal­ly impaired and mal­nour­ished. When test­ed again after sev­er­al years in the adop­tive envi­ron­ment (at age 4), the chil­dren showed great phys­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal progress, espe­cial­ly those adopt­ed before 6 months.


Q: So, can a child out­smart his/her genes?
A: Yes, that can be done says Richard Nis­bett author of “Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count”. In this inter­view, Nis­bett explores the inter­ac­tion between genes, school and intel­li­gence: “If our genes large­ly deter­mine our IQ, which in turn under­lies our per­for­mance through­out our lives, then what is the role of school?”

In this oth­er inter­view, ex-child prodi­gy Joshua Waitzkin’s, Amer­i­can chess play­er, mar­tial arts com­peti­tor, and author, explains how a lot depends on learn­ing about learn­ing.


Q: Are babies born with more or with less neu­rons and synaps­es than adults?

A: Babies are born with more neu­rons and thus synaps­es than adults. In a study con­duct­ed in 2007, Abitz, Damgaard et al. com­pared 8 new­born human brains with those of 8 adult brains and showed that on aver­age, adult neu­ron esti­mates were 41% low­er than those of the new­born. What hap­pens to these extra neu­rons and con­nec­tions then? The answer is synap­tic prun­ing (or neu­ron prun­ing).

Synap­tic prun­ing is a reg­u­la­to­ry process that reduces the over­all num­ber of over­pro­duced neu­rons by “weed­ing out” the weak­er synaps­es. A weak synapse is a synapse that is not used much, which shows that expe­ri­ence is an essen­tial part of brain devel­op­ment.


Q:  Is under 5 THE ONLY crit­i­cal peri­od for brain devel­op­ment?

A: No. Brain devel­op­ment is a con­tin­u­um from birth to age 20 or so. A “crit­i­cal peri­od” in devel­op­ment is a time, in the ear­ly stages of an organ­is­m’s life, dur­ing which the organ­ism shows a very high sen­si­tiv­i­ty to some stim­uli in the envi­ron­ment. If the stim­uli in the envi­ron­ment are present, the organ­ism will devel­op in a spe­cif­ic way. If the stim­uli are not present dur­ing the crit­i­cal peri­od, it may be dif­fi­cult, or some­times impos­si­ble, to devel­op some func­tions. For exam­ple, if an infant does not see light dur­ing the first few months of life (at least 6 months), nerves and neu­rons pro­cess­ing visu­al input will degen­er­ate and even­tu­al­ly die.

The most well-know exam­ple of crit­i­cal peri­od comes from the Crit­i­cal Peri­od Hypoth­e­sis (Lenneberg, 1967), which states that the first few years of life con­sti­tute the time dur­ing which lan­guage devel­ops eas­i­ly. After that learn­ing a lan­guage is more dif­fi­cult and usu­al­ly less suc­cess­ful.

Is it the case how­ev­er that “every­thing hap­pens before age 5”? Would age 0–5 be a crit­i­cal peri­od for all major cog­ni­tive skills? No. Devel­op­ment is more a tra­jec­to­ry, a con­tin­u­um. Brain imag­ing stud­ies and oth­er research show that the brain is not ful­ly devel­oped until age 18 to 20. In par­tic­u­lar, the frontal lobes of the brain — the part involved in judg­ment, orga­ni­za­tion, plan­ning and strate­giz­ing – are the last ones to be wired to func­tion like an adult.


Q: What does play­ing bring to a child?

A: Research has shown that play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, and social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment at all ages. This is espe­cially true of the purest form of play: the unstruc­tured, self-moti­vat­ed, imag­i­na­tive, inde­pen­dent kind, where chil­dren ini­ti­ate their own games and even invent their own rules. In oth­er words, play­ing is a pow­er­ful method of cog­ni­tive and emo­tional devel­op­ment, for chil­dren and adults alike.
Q: Can a child with ADHD be trained to con­trol atten­tion?
A: Yes. In par­tic­u­lar, train­ing work­ing mem­o­ry has an indi­rect effect on atten­tion. Many stud­ies have shown that such train­ing can be ben­e­fi­cial to chil­dren with atten­tion­al prob­lems. More gen­er­al­ly, as Michael Pos­ner, a promi­nent sci­en­tist in the field of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, explains atten­tion con­trol is com­plex but can be trained.
Q: Can a child con­trol his/her own emo­tions?
A: Par­ents and teach­ers tell kids count­less times to “calm down” or “pay atten­tion.” But the nat­ural course of a child’s devel­op­ment means that the brain’s cir­cuitry for calm­ing and focus­ing is a work in progress. Luck­i­ly there are ways to help chil­dren: Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion train­ing seems to be a very suc­cess­ful tool in help­ing chil­dren man­age and boost their emo­tion­al intel­li­gence.
Q: Can the arts boost a child’s aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance?
A: Some stud­ies sug­gest that the arts can boost stu­dents’ test scores, although the results are not always causal in nature. For instance, psy­chol­o­gist Michael Pos­ner observed the brain activ­ity of chil­dren four to sev­en years old while they worked on com­put­er­ized exer­cises intend­ed to mim­ic the attention–focusing qual­i­ties of engag­ing in art. The researchers con­cluded that the arts can train children’s atten­tion, which in turn improves cog­ni­tion.

Q: What is the effect of music on a child’s brain?

A: Does lis­ten­ing to Mozart make chil­dren smarter? It turns out that in spite of the pub­lic­i­ty it received the so-called Mozart effect is sup­port­ed by very lit­tle sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence. How­ev­er learn­ing how to make music can have pos­i­tive long-term changes on the brain. Music instruc­tion may boost spe­cific skills that are direct­ly relat­ed to music such as fine motor skill but also increase more gen­er­al skills such as work­ing mem­ory. (See What is work­ing mem­o­ry? for more infor­ma­tion on this cog­ni­tive skill.)


Q: What is the effect of video games on a child’s brain?

A: For years, video games have been linked to aggres­sion and vio­lence, with researchers and media reports sug­gest­ing that vio­lent games have inspired or even caused vio­lent acts. How­ev­er not all games are the same. Some games may boost a child’s visu­al abil­i­ties such as the abil­ity to pick out rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from a rapid sequence of visu­al events, or the abil­ity to resolve small details or see faint pat­terns. Oth­er video games may even boost high­er-lev­el brain func­tions such as empa­thy: Indeed, video games with pos­i­tive objec­tives can actu­ally inspire peo­ple to per­form acts of altru­ism.

To go further in understanding a child’ brain:



The Sci­en­tist in the Crib: What Ear­ly Learn­ing Tells Us About the Mind by Ali­son Gop­nik, Andrew N. Melt­zoff and Patri­cia K. Kuhl (2000). Harpers Paper­bracks.



What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Devel­op in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Elliot (2000). Ban­tam Books.



A Child’s Brain. The Need for Nur­ture by Dr. Robert Syl­west­er’s (2010). Cor­win.

Read an excerpt here




Keep learn­ing in the sec­ond part of our series: The Ado­les­cent Brain (to be pub­lished in Decem­ber). Do not miss it: Sub­scribe to our free month­ly Brain Fit­ness e‑newsletter!



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3 Responses

  1. xenastar says:

    I would like to know whether moth­er’s behav­iour dur­ing preg­nan­cy will mat­ter for a child’s devel­op­ment…

  2. I’m not exact­ly sure what you mean by “behav­iour” — how she acts, what she learns, etc.? I don’t believe that what the moth­er learns or knows or stud­ies would affect what the baby learns, knows or stud­ies.

    If you’re talk­ing about steps that the moth­er can take to “teach” the baby in utero, Dr. Al Sut­ton of Bar­ry Uni­ver­si­ty talked about gen­tly tap­ping a preg­nant moth­er’s stom­ach when the baby kicked, and devel­op­ing pat­terns of taps. He dis­cov­ered that if done con­sis­tent­ly, the baby learned — in utero — to actu­al­ly respond to the taps.

    More­over, it is a giv­en that a moth­er’s lifestyle will def­i­nite­ly impact a baby’s health and devel­op­ment. Expo­sure to cig­a­rette smoke, alco­hol, and drugs have proven neg­a­tive effects on the baby.

    In addi­tion, expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal tox­ins — lead, mer­cury, pes­ti­cides, house­hold clean­ers etc. — also will be detri­men­tal to the baby’s health.

    Diet, exer­cise and stress will impact a baby’s devel­op­ment, as well. For exam­ple, essen­tial fat­ty acid defi­cien­cies in the moth­er can affect the baby, and a moth­er’s weak immune sys­tem may also prove to be an issue for the baby. (There are some posts about nutri­tion and it’s effects on cog­ni­tion and devel­op­ment at

    Hope this helps!

  3. Daniel says:

    Such a detailed post. The ten ques­tions could real­ly be help­ful to fig­ure out a child’s brain activ­i­ty. Of course a moth­ers behav­ior could affect the child. A new study in rats at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa reveals Trau­ma expe­ri­enced by a moth­er even before preg­nan­cy will influ­ence her off­spring’s behav­ior.

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