The Innate Genius of Baby Brains

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The idea that your baby is a genius is a neurological phenomenon. Renowned child educator Maria Montessori has speculated that if our adult ability is compared with the child’s, we would need 60 years of hard work to accomplish what he achieves in just three. When a child masters turning on and off a light switch, his brain has expended more energy than the most complicated computer that we have on earth. When a child says her first word at the age of nine months, he has mastered a developmental advance that represents millions of evolutionary years in the making. Practically everything your child does in his first two years — every sound, every movement, every mental connection that he makes — places his brain capacity at genius operating level.

Why is this? Why do these simple activities and these seemingly trivial accomplishments prove our children to be geniuses? The answer has to do with the way the brain is organized at birth, and the momentous leaps it has to take in a preposterously short period of time for that child to grow naturally and normally.

All of the cells in a newborn’s brain operate separately from one another. As the brain develops, these cells connect to one another forming actual neurological bridges. These connections are the pathways that determine how we process in-coming information and how we discharge out-going information. The period when these brain cells learn to make these connections most rapidly is the period between birth and three years of age. In the first six months after birth, the brain capacity has reached 50 percent of its adult potential; by the age of three, it has reached 80 percent. Of course much learning still takes place after the age of three, but if the neurological foundation for learning to learn has been laid, learning will always, for the rest of that individual’s life, be easier and more satisfying. We humans generally use only a small fraction of our actual brain potential. Think what we could accomplish if we were to increase our ratio of potential use to actual use.

Researchers now know that it is during these critical first few years of life when life-long patterns for both emotional and physical health are laid down. We know, for instance, that physical health is as much a question of lifestyle as it is genetic or constitutional, and that with proper nutrition and exercise, most physical problems and diseases can be avoided. The patterns for most of our physical, emotional and cognitive traits — good eating habits, the love of movement of the body, the ability to either experience or repress feelings — these are all patterns that are largely formed by the time a child is four years old.

All of these patterns will develop normally and healthily in children as long as their natural inclinations are not subverted. For instance, children are not born with a love for junk food or sugar. Left to their own devices, children will intuitively select foods that meet all their nutritional requirements. Dr. Clara Davis, a researcher at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, did a study some years back. She observed infants from six months to 11 months who had never been given any food other than their mothers’ breast-milk. Each child was offered a wide variety of foods. All foods were unprocessed, natural foods, of both animal and vegetable origin. Davis’ experiment lasted for four years. The results were astonishing in terms of the documentation of children’s innate wisdom in their self-care. All children ate well-balanced meals. Although some children went on food “binges” and ate unorthodox combinations of foods at various meals, the over-all pattern of eating met high nutritional standards. Children who drank little milk had excellent bone growth, a finding which undermines the prevailing notion that bone growth depends upon the substantial calcium intake of milk. Two children who began the study showing signs of rickets continuously chose high calcium foods, and actually “cured” themselves through their own, independent choice of foods.

Davis’ experiment certainly documents the innate life-preserving and intelligent inclinations of babies. Yet, it is clear that healthy choices can only be made when the options available are healthy. The wisdom of self-selection in nutritional requirements can produce healthy babies only if the available choices of foods are healthy and nutritionally sound. The same is true for any other array of choices, whether the alternatives are for selection of music or selection of physical activities. In another study, infants given a choice of music to listen to selected a Beethoven symphony over all other music forms, including nursery rhymes. It is clear that the wisdom of the appetite of a child, for either food for the body or food for the mind, is a mechanism that is exquisitely perfect, even fool-proof, as long as it isn’t baffled, misled or seduced.

On the level of the psyche, we know, too, that the foundation for the formation of personality is already virtually completed by the age of four. At the end of the second year, the baby is already half-way home in terms of how he will respond, for the rest of his life, to frustration and gratification, how he emotionally and cognitively structures his experience of the world, and for the expectations he develops of human relations. With stimulus-enriched environments, we see children learning to swim before they can walk; we see children at the age of two learning five languages simultaneously; we see children at the age of three playing the violin. One of my friend’s children knew 30 different varieties of birds before she was four. Why? Simply because her father is a bird-watcher and they live in the country. These precocious babies are not any different from any normal baby, or from your baby. They are simply being raised in a way that allows for the full expression of their brilliance which is, at birth, all potential, but can be nourished in their first years to skill, ability and accomplishment.

Making our babies happy and healthy in these critical first years of life will give them life-long protection against unhappiness and ill health. This is the real job of motherhood. To borrow the analogy of gardening, a gardener can water the plant to nurture it and sustain it at any point during the plant’s life. But the planting of the seed has to have been completed within a certain time-frame, or the plant will not grow at all. Children who are not exposed to language during the first two years of life will never learn language. Similarly, children not allowed to walk during their first two years will never be able to walk fully erect. We know these facts from the several cases where children have been raised in the wild with animals, and then captured by humans. In none of these cases were these half-human, half-animal creatures ever able to learn the basic human skills of walking and talking.

Even just a period of a year’s difference in teaching is critical in these early years of accelerated learning. Dr. Myrtle McGraw, an American psychologist, taught twin brothers how to roller skate, one at the age of eleven months, the other at twenty-two months. The difference in skill was marked. The child taught at the younger age continued for years to be the more athletic brother. This example confirms a fact that other researchers have found, as well. In order for the full potential for excellence in physical coordination and balance to be reached, skills need to be developed already by the age of four.

I do not mean to suggest that happiness and health are synonymous with brilliance or genius, or excelling in athletics, music or any other single activity. There are, of course, innate differences among us. Some of us are more mathematically inclined; some of us could never run a five-minute mile no matter how much training we did. I do mean to suggest, however, that a healthy, happy human being is one who is living from his unique and particular talents and preferences. It is our responsibility as parents to help our children discover their talents and their desires, and to nourish the development of both. To borrow again the analogy of gardening, an oak tree can’t be made into a maple tree. But children are more malleable than trees. A child who wants to be an athlete, not a scholar, can be coerced, manipulated or persuaded to become what he doesn’t want to become, but the damage from the trade-off may be severe. Such a child will grow up without living from his soul, his inner being that represents who he wants to be and who his natural inclinations would have led him to be. It is the responsibility of a parent to help her child who wants to be an oak to become a fully mature oak, not the maple that she wants him to be.