Scientists have known for a while that early experiences can effect brain development, but up until now this was only seen in children who underwent trauma. But a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that subtle things like books and educational toys will actually influence the way a child’s brain develops.
The study was led by Martha Farah, the director of neuroscience, and took twenty years. The results suggest that stimulation up to the age of four has an impact on the way the brain develops.
The study focused on the cortex, the outer layer of the brain where most abstract and complex thought takes place. The gray matter in this area is carefully pruned as it develops. Backward as it may sound, thinner gray matter means that the brain is more developed, streamlined, and carefully constructed.
Information from the study involved brain scans and surveys. The surveys were used to determine whether the children had educational toys and books, and how much attention the children received from their parents.
They also checked up on the children at the age of eight. Between the ages of 17 and 19, the young adults had their brains scanned.
The study discovered that cognitive stimulation at the age of four was the only factor that had a measurable impact. (Keep in mind the study didn’t check up on the kids before the age of four). Cognitive stimulation at other ages had no impact.
Perhaps surprisingly, parental nurturing had no discernible impact either.
The most heavily impacted area of the brain was the lateral left temporal cortex, located behind the ear. This is the semantic part of the brain, involved in language and symbolic thinking. Those who had more cognitive stimulation also did better on a language test.
In women, the cognitive stimulation also seemed to have a stronger effect on the frontal cortex than it did in men. The frontal cortex plays an important part in focus, inhibition, and decision making.
This is the first study to demonstrate that cognitive stimulation at the age of four has an impact on brain development.