I think it is important to understand how early our brains develop and what our early childhood experiences are capable of being because those experiences can shape how we treat our children whether in the home or in an early childhood center.
The importance of relating to others
Research by the Universiteit Leiden that suggests at the early age of four we are suddenly able to understand the world of others is often different from our own. This article explains how that works.
The maturation of fibres of a brain structure called the arcuate fascicle (see illustration above – green) between the ages of three and four years establishes a connection between two critical brain regions: A region at the back of the temporal lobe (brown) that supports adults thinking about others and their thoughts and a region in the frontal lobe (red) that is involved in keeping things at different levels of abstraction and, therefore, helps us to understand what the real world is and what the thoughts of others are.
When we are around four years old we suddenly start to understand that other people think and that their view of the world is often different from our own. Researchers in Leiden and Leipzig have explored how that works. Publication in Nature Communications on 21 March.
At around the age of four we suddenly do what three-year-olds are unable to do: put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS [image credit]) in Leipzig and at Leiden University have shown how this enormous developmental step occurs: a critical fibre connection in the brain matures. Senior researcher and Leiden developmental psychologist Nikolaus Steinbeis, co-author of the article, took part in the research. Lead author, PhD candidate Charlotte Grosse-Wiesmann, worked under his supervision.
If you tell a 3-year-old child the following story of little Maxi, they will most probably not understand: Maxi puts his chocolate on the kitchen table, then goes to play outside. While he is gone, his mother puts the chocolate in the cupboard. Where will Maxi look for his chocolate when he comes back? A 3-year-old child will not understand why Maxi would be surprised not to find the chocolate on the table where he left it. It is only by the age of 4 years that a child will correctly predict that Maxi will look for his chocolate where he left it and not in the cupboard where it is now.
Theory of Mind
The researchers observed something similar when they showed a 3-year-old child a chocolate box that contained pencils instead of chocolates. When the child was asked what another child would expect to be in the box, they answered “pencils,” although the other child would not know this. Only a year later, around the age of four years, however, will they understand that the other child had hoped for chocolates.
Thus, there is a crucial developmental breakthrough between three and four years: this is when we start to attribute thoughts and beliefs to others and to understand that their beliefs can be different from ours. Before that age, thoughts don’t seem to exist independently of what we see and know about the world. That is, this is when we develop a Theory of Mind.
The researchers have now discovered what is behind this breakthrough.
The maturation of fibres of a brain structure called the arcuate fascicle between the ages of three and four years establishes a connection between two critical brain regions: a region at the back of the temporal lobe that supports adult thinking about others and their thoughts, and a region in the frontal lobe that is involved in keeping things at different levels of abstraction and, therefore, helps us to understand what the real world is and what the thoughts of others are.
Only when these two brain regions are connected through the arcuate fascicle can children start to understand what other people think. This is what allows us to predict where Maxi will look for his chocolate. Interestingly, this new connection in the brain supports this ability independently of other cognitive abilities, such as intelligence, language ability or impulse control.
Gaining specific knowledge through brain research
This is just a glimpse of some of the very specific knowledge we are gaining through our research on the brain in early childhood. It reveals so much about our capabilities at such a young age and how we as parents and caregivers can relate to our children in a more knowledgeable way.
It allows us to realize our children have a breakthrough in their understanding of their real world. As we nurture them through each phase of development, we can be more aware and attuned to their progress with cognition, language and self-control.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Main image credit: Credit: © MPI CBS
Image credit of 4 year old brain, https://www.slideshare.net/ktemplar/the-adolescent-brain-presentation-module-3