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Kids for life? Pros and cons of lifelong neuroplasticity, as seen via our emotional development

– Win­dows of plas­tic­i­ty in brain devel­op­ment. Adapt­ed from Hen­sch T.K. (2005). Crit­i­cal peri­od plas­tic­i­ty in local cor­ti­cal cir­cuits. Nature Reviews Neu­ro­science, 6(11), 877–888

The Brain’s Emo­tion­al Devel­op­ment (Dana Foundation’s Cere­brum):

Humans are like­ly the most emo­tion­al­ly reg­u­lat­ed crea­tures on earth. Com­pared to oth­er ani­mal species, we can mod­u­late and mod­i­fy emo­tion­al reac­tions and expe­ri­ences, even very intense ones, through a large and sophis­ti­cat­ed emo­tion reg­u­la­tion reper­toire that includes skills of dis­trac­tion, reap­praisal, lan­guage, pre­dic­tion, social inter­ac­tion, sup­pres­sion, and more. At times, these skills require effort, and at oth­er times, they seem reflex­ive and auto­mat­ic.

But what are some of the vari­ables in this sophis­ti­cat­ed emo­tion reg­u­la­tion reper­toire? The par­ent of any tod­dler or even ado­les­cent can attest to the very slow devel­op­ment of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion process­es. This slow devel­op­ment has been doc­u­ment­ed in empir­i­cal research, which also notes the large indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences from one person’s abil­i­ty or style of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion to another’s.

Evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly speak­ing, this slow devel­op­ment of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion abil­i­ty in child­hood that cul­mi­nates in an exquis­ite abil­i­ty in adult­hood points to the ben­e­fits of a slow-matur­ing emo­tion reg­u­la­tion sys­tem. Indeed, humans are not only a high­ly emo­tion­al­ly reg­u­lat­ed species, but they are slow­ly devel­op­ing in gen­er­al, rel­a­tive to oth­er species, with a pro­longed peri­od of imma­tu­ri­ty. Phy­lo­ge­net­i­cal­ly, slow devel­op­ment may con­fer ben­e­fits through an extend­ed peri­od of neur­al plasticity—a fea­ture of a devel­op­ing neur­al sys­tem that height­ens its abil­i­ty to learn from the envi­ron­ment. If so, then humans may owe their sophis­ti­cat­ed emo­tion reg­u­la­tion skills to the “exten­sion” of child­hood that has evolved in us…We now know that the pre­frontal cor­tex is one of the last brain regions to devel­op, and its con­nec­tions with oth­er cor­ti­cal and sub­cor­ti­cal tar­gets are very slow to form. These process­es are espe­cial­ly slow in the human, and evi­dence of con­tin­ued devel­op­ment has been doc­u­ment­ed through ado­les­cence and adult­hood. This slow-paced and sus­tained devel­op­ment ren­ders the pre­frontal cor­tex and its con­nec­tions vul­ner­a­ble to envi­ron­men­tal insults (e.g., ear­ly psy­choso­cial adver­si­ty), but at the same time offers great poten­tial for exten­sive learn­ing from pos­i­tive, enrich­ing envi­ron­ments, and the opti­miza­tion of neur­al process­es that will facil­i­tate reg­u­lat­ed behav­ior. Its end-prod­uct is an incred­i­bly rich emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion reper­toire in the mature adult.”

To learn more about emotion regulation and brain plasticity:

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