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The Developing Brain: Nurture And Nature

Meditations (Spirituality) - From Martin LeFevre in California

The Developing Brain: Nurture And Nature

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In an age when most everyone is bombarded with too much information, noise, and violence, the sound of a gently flowing stream is not just music to the ears -- it is a healing balm for the heart and soul.

Sound and general atmosphere are closely linked. The effects of sound on the attentive, receptive brain are striking. Sound is the first and best teacher of meditation, since unlike sight, one does not control what one hears. Listening without labeling quiets the mind, and opens new dimensions of perception.

If that is true for the minds and brains of adults, how much more true is it for the minds and brains of young, developing children? Unfortunately, cultural conditions are taken as givens, and seen as inconsequential to the child’s neuronal development.

It was recently reported that the brains of autistic children react to sound a fraction of a second slower than normal children. Scientists believe this may explain the communication problems associated with autism, but it only raises more questions about child development in general.

There is “strong supporting evidence for the emerging theory that autism is a problem of connectivity in the brain," said Timothy Roberts, vice chairman of research in the Department of Radiology at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

OK, but it is a leap of logic, if not a baseless assumption, to think that ‘problems of connectivity’ exist a priori, and could not be a result of some reaction to the environment in the infant’s forming brain.

Using a new and as yet rare technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), Roberts and his colleagues had 30 autistic children, age 6 to 15, listen to an array of sounds and syllables while monitoring the tiny magnetic fields produced by the brain's electrical impulses.

The response time in a normal child’s brain is a tenth of second, whereas MEG showed that autistic brains were 20 to 50 percent slower. Since a single syllable in a multi-syllable word often takes a quarter second to say, this lag can pose huge communication difficulties for the child’s acquisition of language.

Under the reigning philosophical premise that all mental disorders are biologically based, the presumption is that the root causes of autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and mental problems in general are preexisting deficiencies in the brain. That presumption is wholly unwarranted, and dangerously misleading.

Looking for the biological basis of all mental problems is the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You find what you’re looking for. Indeed, the very act of looking for biological causes determines the scientist’s conclusions. The science may be impeccable, but the philosophy is awful.

Since we are biological creatures, obviously all behaviors ultimately have their basis in neuronal and genetic structures. But does that mean all behavior (including mental disorders and behavioral deficiencies) originate in our neurons and genes? Hardly.

Anyone who has spent some attentive time with a pre-verbal toddler realizes that they understand a lot more than they can say. Babies and toddlers process sound well before they utter their first words. It follows that the aural environment has significant impact on the child’s development.

Almost certainly, unseen influences in the home and the culture have a bearing on heart-wrenching disorders such as autism and ADD. But the overemphasis on the biological basis of mental problems has led to an overemphasis on the nature rather than the nurture side of the equation. The unconscionable rise in pharmaceutical interventions follow, which of course suits the drug industry very well.

With a disorder as complex, multifaceted, and intractable as autism, the question of nature or nurture is impossible to definitively answer. To suggest, as Dr. Roberts does, that MEG will be able to solve the dilemma of what is hereditary and what is environmental about the condition shows faulty thinking.

A neonate is a completely dependent, rapidly developing conglomeration of neurons, organs, and tissues that is extremely sensitive to its environment. Though infants have not learned how to process information, and indeed their brains are still rapidly growing, they no doubt react to the quality of the sounds and atmosphere around them.

Scientists say that the brain of the human fetus is growing so fast and large that a good portion of its development must take place outside the womb, or the head wouldn’t fit through the birth canal. That means that just as much care should be given to the quality of the environment in the first year of life as to the health of the mother during pregnancy.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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