Learning to learn: The self-constructing brain

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

#freshfromthelab: Prof Mark Johnson's on how the brain constructs itself in development.

We had the honour and pleasure to be at the symposium held in honour of the highly influential cognitive and developmental scientist Annette Karmiloff-Smith on the 27th and 28th March 2018 at Birkbeck University. Anna Gui reports here about the talk by Prof Mark Johnson, head of the psychology department at Cambridge University, associate director of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck University, board member of BabyBrains (whoop! whoop!), but most importantly a close collaborator of Annette's and his dedicated life partner (we heard about many Sunday afternoons donated to the advancement of science and to the nurturing of human connections with the participating families).

Mark's talk was a wonderful and touching summary of Annette’s life of research and passion. Annette and Mark are passion about the brain, and they observed development to see how it works. In a way, it is similar to our experience as parents, when we see our child growing up, acquiring new skills and losing other ones, we understand how even our own brain must work. Of course, their approach was very different from that of a parent’s as it was systematic, rigorous, theory-led... and just so clever! Read Anna's report below to find out more!

Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Mark Johnson. Prof Johnson presented their original perspective (called “Neuroconstructivism”, wikipedia link here, the complete deal here), extensive proofs of its validity and future directions of research which are inspired by it. “The brain is engaged in an active process of self-construction,” explains Prof Johnson. Developmental stages are not completely pre-determined, “innate,” genetically defined obligatory steps. On the other hand, the newborn is not a passive, initially “blank slate” to be filled with information coming from the environment. On the contrary, the child (and the child’s brain) is actively involved in the learning process!

How does the brain learn? At the beginning, the connections between areas in the brain are quite disorganized and not very efficient. After a successful performance, though, some of the connections become stronger and brain areas more specialized. Through experience, active connections are reinforced and useless connections are progressively pruned. This helps the brain networks become more and more effective in responding to stimuli. The neurons’ activity guides the brain’s self-organization, which is a very dynamic process!

Is it magic? What mechanisms underlie this process?

By looking at individual developmental trajectories of children with genetic abnormalities, such as Williams or Down syndromes, Prof Karmiloff-Smith observed that genetics interacts with environmental context in shaping development. An example? When adults are worried about the fact that a child might never learn some skills, or might get more easily hurt, they behave differently than they would do with a healthy child. Some might be very protective, some might be more anxious, some offer more stimuli. Consequently, the child’s environment is different than it would be if she did not have a genetic disorder! The same is true for every human being. Parents of more than one child will certainly agree on the fact that, for each of their children, development has been a completely different story.

Another example of children’s brains actively determining their own development in response to the environment is what Prof Johnson calls “syndromes of adaptation,” such as autism and ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). Here, genetic risk factors cause the connections in the brain to be less efficient from early in life. Consequently, Prof Johnson believes that behavioral symptoms are simply the developmental response to a different starting point. For example, the narrowed focus of attention, characteristic of many children with autism, has the function of reducing confusion in a complex environment by concentrating all the resources on one stimulus. Repetitive behaviors, also among the symptoms of autism, could be seen as the way to generate simple, predictable stimulations in reaction to variable and uninterpretable situations. It’s all about being able to adapt to the environment!

Why is all this useful? Is it only a theoretical speculation? It’s not. It’s actually very relevant for parents and caregivers! We now know that the brain is actively adapting and constructing itself in the first year of life in response to the environment. So, we have the possibility to help development by providing stimuli which will support the learning process (one attempt to nurture such mindful parenting is the BabyBrains Workshop Series, editor's note). Researchers are now testing this hypothesis. A first trial, conducted on the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings showed that a simple intervention promoting social attention in infants at genetic risk for autism improve long term social skills. Promising!

Take home message?

  1. Children’s brains are actively involved in learning from the beginning of life.

  2. Children learn and develop new skills thanks to the interaction between the genetic background and the environment.

  3. We can help this amazing process by providing each child with an environment which is optimal for her specific needs.

Annette's 70th birthday. Girls only!

Suggested reading: Kyra Karmiloff & Annette Karmiloff-Smith. Understanding your baby: A parent's guide to early child development.

The early years are a time when your baby’s brain is busier than at any other time in his life […]. Every sound, sight and sensation, and each new social encounter that your baby experiences, leads to the strengthening of pathways created in his brain. Learning never stops, not even during the night. […] Looking at the world through your baby’s eyes will really help you to help him.

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