An excerpt from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD
How and How Not to Hardwire Your Child’s Brain
The human brain is an incredibly complex organ. There’s a lot we don’t yet know, and many discoveries still to be made. The inherently complex and often confusing nature of brain science can lead people to misunderstand, misinterpret, or oversimplify findings—including marketers who want to sell new products that seem to have “scientifically proven” value. Parents who want to ensure their child receives the latest, most up?to?date learning opportunities can be vulnerable to claims that this or that product has been developed in light of new neuroscientific findings. Based on my research for my new book The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You. I have found extensive brain science supporting intuitive parenting. One of the guiding principles of this parenting style is that parents should cultivate a healthy skepticism about marketers’ and others’ claims about products and practices “scientifically based” to “wire the brain,” as these myths can be highly damaging to the development of their child.
Perhaps the most damaging myth is that brain development has a fixed “critical period” that requires specialized input—or else. Many parents seem to believe that they have to wire their child’s brain before the third birthday, or risk dooming them to go through the rest of their life with a brain that never realized its potential. The truth is that although the brain does indeed need input to become properly wired, this input does not have to be specialized. Even better, “wiring the brain” is a lifelong process and fundamental brain architecture is not completed until the end of the teenage years—or even later.
Another myth is that children can be accurately classified into “right brain” or “left brain” learners. As you are probably aware, the human brain is divided into right and left sides. These cerebral hemispheres are connected by thick bundles of nerve axons (white matter) called the corpus callosum. The frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe are duplicated on both sides of the brain but are not totally identical, and the right and left sides perform slightly different activities within the same regions.
Much has been made of “right brain” and “left brain” thinking and differences between “auditory” learners and “visual” learners, particularly in child development. The belief is that because the left brain is associated with language skills in most people (especially boys), there must be a parallel function with auditory learning. The right brain is thought to be responsible for visual learning. Although there is some validity to the idea that certain areas of the brain are better for tasks such as seeing and listening, it is grossly misleading to assert broad functions as the sole responsibility of one side or the other of the brain. Studies of thinking and other tasks show that both sides of our brains are engaged and activated all the time. Additionally, the entire purpose (and function) of the corpus callosum “bridge” between the brain hemispheres is for each side of the brain to share information with the other so as to coordinate their activities.
Despite this, myths based on oversimplification persist and have inspired the development of child educational programs and special products that supposedly target and train specific left-or right-brained skills. For example, Thomas Biesanz’s Right Brain Math book, DVDs and videos are marketed as a teaching approach “based on pattern recognition (right brain)” that “bypasses many of the misunderstandings caused by language,” even though there is no evidence that the activities selectively activate the right side of the brain—nor that there is even a right brain-left brain difference in learning math! Biesanz’s strategies may help some kids, but the label is a marketing gimmick.
Dianne Craft is a certified special-education teacher and learning consultant who also markets a number of products that distinguish “right brain kids” from “left brain kids” and offer “right brain methods” for struggling learners. “Fifty percent of the population is right-brain dominant,” she claims, and “80% of the struggling learners I see are right-brain dominant.” Marketing copy for her right brain flash cards says that “right brain kids learn best with picture, color, emotion, and humor.” Do “left brain kids” learn best without any of those things? Whether or not her teaching strategies are helpful to some kids, her emphasis on left-or right-brained “dominance” is profoundly oversimplified.
Parents should never fall victim to the mythology that certain activities or computer games are necessary for right brain or left brain development. Rather, it is important to focus on the activity itself and let the child’s brain wire itself in the most efficient way for that individual child in the real world. Provide an opportunity to learn, respond appropriately (as in dialogic reading), and let nature take its course. This will allocate the neural resources to the locations and hemispheres that are best for your child’s brain. Moreover, there is tremendous individuality (and individual difference) in the way brains are wired. As an example, understanding what people say is completed in an area of the brain called “Wernicke’s area,” named after the scientist who discovered where the brain processes spoken language. A study of the location of Wernicke’s area in individual patients indicated that everyone who could understand spoken language has a Wernicke’s area. However, while some were located in the upper temporal lobe, others were found in the posterior part of the temporal lobe, and still others were found in the parietal lobe. The key point here is that everyone who understands spoken language has a functioning Wernicke’s area, but it can be in different locations that fit an individual’s unique brain map. It is foolhardy to try to force this function into a specific brain region, or to assume that everyone should have Wernicke’s area in exactly the same location in their brain.
Similarly, there can be very significant differences as to which side of an individual’s brain is used for processing tasks. For some people, a creative endeavor may activate primarily the right brain, whereas in others it is the left brain that becomes more activated.
Creativity is an important ability that parents should continually nurture in their children. Studies of creativity show that this can be a left brain activity when telling stories or listening to stories, or a right brain activity when filling in pieces to a missing puzzle or having a flash of insight. A parent’s job is to facilitate the development of creativity by reading stories and encouraging their children to make up and tell stories of their own.
Parents should also provide children with blocks, artist’s materials, clay, Play- Doh, and other toys and materials that allow them to create. Who cares whether a child’s brain does this on the right side or the left side, just as long as they learn to be creative? In reality, as brain studies show, creativity uses both sides of the brain, and there is no specific “creativity center” where creativity occurs. Rather, multiple brain regions are recruited during creative activities and creative thinking.
Over and over again, I have seen that attempts to take shortcuts with regard to learning and wiring the brain in the name of “fast-tracking” the wiring of a child’s brain. These simply cannot hold a candle to intuitive parenting. Removing the anxiety and stress of milestones or a “critical period” and using the tools of intuitive parenting that I spell out in my book will ensure that your child’s mind is hardwired for learning and thinking well into teen years and adulthood.
Adapted from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.
Read Brain, Child’s interview with author Stephen Camarata.