Approximately 3 million years ago, hominoids began evolving away from their ape cousins at a phenomenal rate — brains growing larger and larger with each transition from one human species to the next.
However, Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) director and York University philosophy and psychology distinguished research professor Stuart Shanker said while the human brain has kept growing in size right up until its current girth within Homo sapiens, other parts of the body lower-down have evolved very little from those early hominid ancestors.
“The size of the birthing canal never changed.”
According to Shanker, who spoke about the neuroscience of early childhood development during a Thursday morning session at the Imagine the Future Conference at Mosaic Place, evolution found a loophole to allow the human brain to keep growing, without preventing women from remaining bipedal due to larger and larger baby heads.
Basically, he said, mothers kept birthing children earlier and earlier, so as to make the infants smaller when they come out. Basically, he said, all human beings are born prematurely, with much of their fetal development happening outside the womb — sort of like a joey.
“It’s such a big deal, because it affords the incredible adaptability of our species.”
What this means, Shanker said, is a newborn baby goes through a period of rapid growth in brain size and synapses development throughout early childhood.
One of the developments that occurs after birth, Shanker said, is the integration of all five senses. While a baby can see, hear, smell and feel, it is not yet able to merge those sensations and associate, for example, the sounds of what one is saying with the image of the person saying it.
While most children will learn to integrate the senses and hook it into the motor system, Shanker said there are children with problems achieving this integration, many of whom are in the classroom.
“You would be astonished how far children can go in our school system with poor education.”
When it comes to dealing with such integration, Shanker said there are developments in technology to assist children. However, he said it is ideal to deal with these matters early on, when the brain in still in a state of neuroplasticity.
“We can start to see these things at 18 months.”
During his presentation on Thursday, Shanker largely discussed MEHRI’s work with autistic children in regards to brain development. He discussed the four primary reflexes innate to all babies — emotional responses to stimuli that sets off a series of complex activity.
For example, when a baby feels fear, it stimulates such physical reactions as crying, clenched eyes, and an obvious display of anxiety. Shanker said the result of these actions has a rather predictable response that, evolutionarily speaking, aids in the otherwise helpless infant’s survival.
“The function is to bring mommy running.”
The problem with this system, Shanker said, is a baby cannot shutdown its fear response to stimuli on its own. He or she will only stop crying when exhausted to the point of falling asleep (which seems to ‘reset’ the child).
However, if a parent can sooth and comfort a baby out of an anxious state, that works as well.
“So it’s really Mom or Dad who has to perform that regulatory function.”
Shanker describes the infant brain as really being an incomplete and developing machine, which largely feeds off the developed brain of a parent (through verbal and nonverbal communication) to learn how to self-regulate its emotional states over time.
However, with some children the ability to “back-and-forth” with a parent is hindered or blocked, Shanker said, and so the child does not learn the ability of self-regulating. The system involves the parent unconsciously educating the child, but if this exchange cannot occur, a development such as sensory integration is impacted and this can lead to problems throughout a person’s life.
For example, Shanker said a child with issues integrating senses will have trouble making friends, because he or she will have trouble interpreting the facial expressions of his or her pears.
When looking at autistic children, Shanker notes it is common for hypersensitivity to play a role in the issues that face these children. He said the mere look from a parent can set off stress reactions from an autistic child, which means he or she will divert attention away from the parent’s gaze, whose interaction is key to the child’s brain’s development.
Without learning to self-regulate, the autistic child has trouble getting out of a closed cycle of anxiety, because he or she cannot communicate sufficiently.
Shanker said, though, if one can break through the stresses that plague these children, the positive results are almost instantaneous. He said all children have a desire to engage with their parents and learn. If one cannot achieve this through more conventional means, Shanker said finding a way to get around the stresses of a child to communicate is possible and extremely beneficial.
He offered an example of an autistic child who was able to count when prompted to do so from a teacher lying on the ground below him (as he had trouble processing visual information when he looked up).
Much of the work Shanker is involved with is teaching children to self-regulate. If they can learn how to break through their own stress barriers, Shanker said, then that opens a lot of proverbial doors for these youth.
While most children within the school system are not autistic or suffering from dire developmental problems, Shanker said there is still a lot of issues with many contemporary youth, and learning to self-regulate is incredibly valuable. He said these techniques can be broadened from a clinical level and integrated into the classroom, so as to help children improve in this capacity.
“We are just at the beginning.”
For more information on Shanker’s work, visit www.mehri.ca.