Maren Schmidt: Brain seeks to control stress

Brain researchers think a newborn's brain creates neurons at a rate of over a quarter a million per minute. The young brain grows and absorbs information without evaluating, filtering or giving priority to the information. The brain receives each event with the same import as every other experience.

The young brain hasn't learned how to filter critical information for survival, as true or false, real or fantasy, or good or bad. The brain receives violence, disrespect, hurtful language and physical abuse with the same sense of reality as calmness, kindness, positivity and gentleness. Loud noises, harsh lighting, disruptions, irregular schedules, though, are among the activities that create stress in the young child and communicates to the brain and body to be on danger alert. The brain seeks to control stress in the young child and begins to create a brain structure based on acceptance or avoidance of the stimuli in the child's environment.

During the first six-years of life the child is in a sensitive period for learning about human relationships and what it means to be human. When the environment is such that the brain perceives the child's surroundings as hurtful, brain structure begins to reflect that perception by pruning down neuron development for hearing, touch, hunger, etc. to compensate for the stressful sensory overload. Likewise, if the environment is calm and nurturing, the brain develops to accept and grow in response to that life-affirming presence.

Our electronic babysitters may contribute more to children's misperceptions of what it means to be human than the actual experience of living with people. Some facts to consider:

36 percent of all children have TVs in their bedrooms

50 percent of households have three or more TVs

49 percent of households have video game players

73 percent of households have computers

99 percent of children live in a home with a TV set

The pervasive nature of electronic media in our children's lives is substantial. Children's Saturday morning programs have averaged 20 to 25 violent acts per hour. The content of the media - violence, abusive language - affects the stress level of a child and thus the development of the brain and personality.

The brain during the first two years of life is absorbing information as if everything experienced were normal and brain development responds accordingly. If normal is loud, violent, or abusive, and not the expected loving interaction with adults, the child's brain development begins to incorporate defensive mechanisms that work against the child's natural tendencies to be curious and seek out new, challenging and meaningful experiences, the core of true learning.

We need to minimize the amount of distress in our young children's environments. Noise levels, lighting, abrupt disruptions, and the threat of violence from television or others needs to be managed by the adults in the child's life to maximize healthy brain growth.

If you have a television in your home, step outside today while the television is playing, and look through a window at the television screen. Imagine that you are a newborn, a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old. What are the lighting, the changes in images and the type of images conveying to a child's mind? Think about how your child's brain is reacting to these stressors, and how you can minimize these stressors. Remember, a child's brain grows in response to its environment.

Next week: Brains Need Quiet Time

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