Newborn brains are similar, so nurture makes the difference

Many scientists attribute 20 per cent of person's outcome to nature and 80 per cent to nurture

Published On Tue Nov 03 2009

Zachary Stein, a doctoral candidate in education at Harvard University, says he sees biology as a platform, rather than a limitation on outcomes.

TSAR FEDORSKY / GETTY IMAGES FOR THE TORONTO STAR

 

It used to be said that biology is destiny, as if each human brain contained its own personal genetic limitations.

Today, breathtaking findings by neuroscientists are showing that biology is the ultimate level playing field. The human brain at birth holds within it untold, often untapped, equal opportunity only slightly influenced by genetic prophecy.

Many scientists now believe that 20 per cent of a person's outcome in life is the result of innate brain capacity. The other 80 per cent is based on what happens after birth.

It means, controversially, that nurture is far more important than nature alone, although of course the two work in tandem. And that means changes to nurturing particularly parenting and schooling can affect whether a child becomes a surgeon or a slacker.

"Most people think of biology as a limit, but I think of it as a platform," says Zachary Stein, a PhD candidate in human education and development at Harvard University's graduate school of education.

These findings that there is no essential biological difference at birth between a boy brain and a girl brain raise questions about the plan for an all-boys elementary school in Toronto next year and similar gender- or race-dedicated schools.

"I was confronted many times: `Is there a female brain and a male brain?'" says Bruno della Chiesa, author of the OECD's book Understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science and a leader in the international movement to use neuroscience findings to improve schooling.

No, he says, citing functional MRI studies that show, for example, that there are no differences in the young male brain that would explain why boys might have more trouble reading.

This is a modern take on the Renaissance concept of Homo universalis, that a person's capacity for development is boundless.

The biological reasoning behind the equal brain concept is this: Barring tragic malformation, the newborn's brain contains about 100 billion neurons, the nerve cells capable of communicating with each other electrochemically. That's roughly the same number it will always have.

The difference between baby and adult is the amount and location of connective tissue synapses among the neurons.

So the business of growing the brain from newborn to child to adult is to build synaptic connections and then networks of these connections within the brain. Those synapses carry understanding and memory, or what we know as learning. So the synaptic connections are made by learning and contain learning.

An adult brain will have perhaps 100 trillion to 500 trillion synapses, and is capable of pruning and building new ones throughout life. In effect, the more synapses, and the more efficiently they connect, the smarter you are.

Conceptually, then, given the same stimulation, any brain can be pretty much as smart as the next. Except in real life, that doesn't happen. What gets in the way? That seems to be connected mainly to social factors including how you perceive your own ability and how others do, however prejudiced as well as to the amount of experience and opportunity you get throughout life and such things as how well you eat.

That means two brains that start out the same way can be dramatically different at the age of 2 if one has been deprived of play, talk, touch, food or love.

By the age of 5, when most children start school, the differences in the connective tissue in the brain can be even more startling. The level playing field they started with is no longer level; some children can read fluently by kindergarten and others still don't know their colours.

The 2000 book From Neurons to Neighborhoods, edited by Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips, notes that these "striking" differences, which are connected with levels of household wealth and status, end up predicting how well the children later do at school. Unless, that is, the child can make up the disparities through terrific teaching or other factors.

That book was a revolutionary challenge to the work of influential American educational psychologist Arthur Jensen. Since the late 1960s, he has been a prolific and persuasive researcher who maintains that much of a child's ability to think is hereditary.

He concluded that programs such as Head Start in the U.S., which aimed to improve the outcomes of poorer children, were fated to fail.

Shonkoff and Phillips put together the findings of hundreds of research studies for their report, which went to the U.S. National Research Council. It concluded that non-genetic influences are the main reason for differences among adults and that interventions to help shape children's brains are critical.

Infant brain imaging, baby brain wave studies and even autopsies of infants show the profound similarities among newborn human brains. Adult brains, however, are profoundly different biologically.

Stuart Shanker, research professor of psychology and philosophy at York University in Toronto, says that brain surgeons have concluded that every adult brain is so different that even basic landmarks can be hard to find.

"The idea that there are brain topographies turns out to be nonsense," he says.

What does this great equalizing brain mean for education?

For one thing, it implies that the first several years of life, when the synaptic connections are being made fast and furiously, are critically important to the child's future intelligence. That's why there has been such a policy focus across the world on making sure young children are not deprived.

That doesn't mean loading them up with Baby Einstein videos or playing them Bach around the clock. It just means connecting with them, talking, reading, feeding and teaching in a natural, loving way. In other words, helping them learn from the more advanced brain of the older person who is taking care of them.

Once they get to school, does it mean that teachers should employ a single, universal model to teach to the brain?

No. The opposite.

"The danger is of neuroscience pushing us back into one-size-fits-all," says Martin Westwell, a neuroscientist at Flinders University in Adelaide. "That's absolutely not the answer."

Key to the discussion of neuro-education is that brains are made with different ways of dealing with information. Neuroeducation is about honouring those different ways of learning, about finding new ways into brains that don't respond in a cookie-cutter way.

To many of today's most influential minds in neuroeducation, the key phrase is mass customization, the opposite of the factory-floor mass standardization education model that has characterized public education systems over the past century.

Some ideas: breaking children into small groups to teach new concepts, or allowing kids to hand in assignments as booklets, PowerPoint presentations, custom-written songs or freshly designed games.

"Every classroom will look a little different," says Stein.

But each young brain will have a chance to be equal.

 

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Stereotypes can undermine success
 

Even through neuroscientists believe there are few differences in potential among infant brains, there are vast differences historically between the successes of men and women, and between blacks and whites.

In our own era, 765 of the Nobel prizes since the honour began in 1901 have been to males compared to just 41 to females. Few Nobels have gone to people outside the developed world.

Evidence like this has been cited in calling for dedicated schools for certain sexes or cultural backgrounds. In Toronto, a school aimed at black students opened this fall after a lobby by parents who said the public system excluded their children's cultural heritage and put them at a disadvantage.

But there are reasons beyond biology that explain the differences in outcome.

There is compelling research out of Stanford University that if a black male student is reminded of being black before taking a test, his mark will be dramatically lower than if he wrote it without identifying his skin colour.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist, writes about this phenomenon in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How we Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential.

So being reminded of a stereotype invoked the stereotype. It's a similar story with gender. Women who think they're good at math get rattled when they take a test dominated by male students. The test scores don't describe ability, but rather, perceived ability.

This means all-black or all-girls' schools might be helpful, even though the children's brains are substantially the same at birth.

But neuroscientists caution not all blacks or all girls learn the same way, making it important teachers in those schools not substitute one box for another.

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Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

Our Family Court Judges only believe mother's can provide nurturing, father's apparently don't rate. Fact is, with two loving parents, children get more nurturing and an advantage in life. Our current male gender apartheid war against father's is systematic child abuse depriving children of love and affection essential to stem the increasingly dysfunctional generations.