How does experience affect the development of a baby's brain?

A baby's brain development is affected by all their experiences, both positive and negative. Positive experiences include the parents or caregivers’ speaking to, playing with, and caring for the child. For example, speaking promotes language skills, and exposure to songs promotes cognitive and communicative skills. Within the brain, the cerebral cortex, or outer layers of the cerebrum, has different lobes associated with specific functions related to different higher processes, such as memory and learning.

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Human brain development, which goes through significant prenatal stages, is strongly shaped by the infant’s experiences after birth. The full range of experiences, both positive and negative, affects brain development. This includes nutrition and factors in the immediate environment, such as room temperature and appropriate clothing.

The actions of parents and caregivers are especially important in promoting brain development. Among the activities in which they should regularly engage are speaking in a moderate tone of voice; providing exposure to aural and visual stimulation, such as music, colors, and shapes; playing, using age-appropriate games and toys; and caring for the baby, including positive physical interactions such as holding the child and guiding their hands during play.

Specific parts of the brain are associated with specific functions to which different activities contribute, while other brain areas help the baby synthesize diverse elements. Overall, the part of the brain connected with higher functions such as memory and learning is the cerebrum. Its outer layers or the cerebral cortex has four areas called lobes that are further associated with functions and skills. For example, speaking, reading, and singing to a baby contribute to language and communicative skills. These are associated with both the temporal lobes, which are involved with hearing and language skills, and the frontal lobes, which are associated with memory and abstract thinking.

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Experience plays a very important part when it comes to the development of the human brain in infants and babies. This is because experience helps to build connections, synapses, within the brain, which allow it to develop further and to grow.

Learning takes place mainly through experiences in babies, as babies develop behavioral patterns mostly through conditioning. Pavlov demonstrated this very famously through his experiment with a dog—after having heard a bell being rung before being given food several times, the dog had learned to connect the sound of the bell with the approaching of food. This led to the dog starting to salivate merely upon hearing the bell, without even needing to see the food. The same applies with babies, as babies' brains develop by making connections and links similar to the one Pavlov observed in his dog.

For example, a baby will initially appear to make a smile by simply experimenting with moving its facial features and copying the facial expressions of those around him. However, soon the baby will realize that once it smiles at someone, this person will smile back and perhaps even praise the baby or stroke it. In order to create this positive experience again, the baby will continue to attempt to smile in order to create this same positive reaction again. This is what's called positive conditioning.

Another example to show you how experience helps the development of the brain in babies is the development of speech. Over time, a baby will come to realize that the word milk is said every time the mum feeds the baby milk. Eventually, the baby will be able to copy this sound and utter it every time it is hungry, as the baby's brain will have worked out that the sound of the word milk refers to the white liquid that removes the baby's feeling of hunger if the baby drinks it. Therefore, as the baby grows up, it will learn to ask for milk itself when it is hungry (or at least produce a sound similar to this word, in an attempt to try and copy what it has heard from its parents).

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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