What do you mean by "emotional lability?"
An example for a teenager would be their outbursts. They might be perfectly
happy one moment and then just turn around and be absolutely miserable and
scream, "I hate you, you're the worst parent," and then a moment later, say,
"Oh, dear Mom, that was great. Thanks for doing that." And there are cycles
which can occur sometimes from a parent's perspective on the order of a
nanosecond, although they probably sometimes take minutes. That lability is
probably because the frontal cortex is not adequately overseeing the middle
part of the brain that actually gives rise to the emotion.
Are there things that we blamed before on hormone surges or attitude --
"this is simply a stage" -- that actually could be explained by a developing
Right. We think hormones play a role in some of this emotional lability, but
unfortunately, we don't know exactly what that role is. We say that because we
know that during the initial burst of hormones that occurs as a child enters
puberty, [is] when the lability can be the most dramatic. As children get to be
a year or two post-puberty, that's when things start to level out. But we think
the lability itself is probably due to this emotion regulation function done by
the frontal cortex. ...
So when young teenagers feel that they are misunderstood, they really have a
cause to feel that? In fact, their brain is still developing.
Teenagers -- particularly when they're first becoming teenagers -- have every
reason to believe and to feel that no one understands them. They themselves are
sometimes surprised at what flies out of their mouth. A personal example is
when my son was 12, he one day just blurted something out and then grinned and
he thought out loud, "Where did that come from?"
The reason for these things is that they're feeling things before they can
regulate and even articulate what it is they're feeling. So they often [let things] fly out
of their mouth. And sadly, there's an analogy that sometimes adult patients
with damage to the frontal lobe behave just like this as well.
So what does this mean for our understanding of child development as a
whole? How does this impact on the work that's been done on early
The recent work on brain development, in my mind, enormously helps explain
things that we've known for some time in child development. People who've
studied adolescence for many years have pointed to these changes in behavior
that we've been describing -- these changes in mood and fluctuations in mood
and the like -- without quite being able to pinpoint what was responsible for
those changes. Now, I think we have a much better handle on that. My argument
would be that it's the changes going on in the frontal cortex that gradually
give the child the ability to regulate those powerful emotions, to do things
like solve problems more effectively, to be more planful in their behavior.
For example, it's not uncommon for children in, say, seventh and eighth grade
to not be very good at doing their homework, because they'll often forget that
they have a project due the next day. As they get older, they're better at
doing that. These are all skills that are done by the frontal cortex that is
unfolding from the time a child starts to enter puberty until probably 15 to 18
years of age. So what's really new here is our ability to explain the child
development work that we've known about for quite some time.
If we see that there's an explosion of growth and a great deal of change in
this adolescent brain between, let's say, 11 and 15, does this reinforce some
people who have said [that] the brain is actually a lot more plastic than
people thought, and we should look at the early childhood years?
I think that neuroscientists have felt for many years that the brain is
remarkably pliable and remains pliable for a fair number of years. The concept
that the first three years of life is when there's the most malleability and,
after that, we lose it, is based on a misreading of some of the basic
For example, we know that there are sensitive periods in how we develop our
eyesight, how we perceive speech and language -- that we need to be exposed to
things in our visual world and in our auditory world in those first few years
for those systems to become set normally. But in terms of our cognitive
systems, our intellectual abilities, our emotional abilities -- those have a
much longer developmental trajectory. We think that, in fact, the ability to
modify one's intellectual potential and one's emotional control and emotional
feelings and the like probably remains pliable well beyond the teenage years.
Of course, a classic example of that is how effective psychotherapy can be for
the treatment of some mental disorders. So there we have a situation where
we're actually modifying neural systems that are involved in emotion and we can
do that at the age of 20 or 30 or 40 or 50. So there's a case where we can
actually point to an example of the malleability of the brain -- the fact that
we can acquire second and third languages, the fact that we learn new material
throughout our life span -- all examples of this plasticity that you refer to,
or this pliability of the brain.
So in fact it was a little bit misleading to think that the door closed at the
age of three and then after that, the brain was not very plastic or pliable
anymore. The reality is that that's true in only a small number of areas. But
beyond the age of three, there's dramatic change.
Why is this debate particularly important?
I think part of the misunderstanding was that, in fact, in the first few years
of life, the brain grows more dramatically in size than it does at any other
point in time. People interpreted that to mean that because that is the most
rapid period of development, it is a critical period of development.
But in fact, after the age of three, although the size of the brain isn't
changing all that dramatically, when you look carefully at it, it's the
intricate architecture of the brain that continues to unfold for the next
decade or more. So this was never a point of contention among those who view
the world through the lens of a neuroscientist. They knew that the brain
continued to develop for the first one or two decades of life.
The concern was that there was some evidence on the child development side
that, unless children had certain experiences in those first few years, that
would lead to a bad outcome and this was based primarily on work of
deprivation. A good example were some studies that were done on children reared
in Romanian orphanages that indicated that if they spent more than sometimes a
year or two in those orphanages, their development would be derailed.
The problem is the study of deprivation doesn't tell us much about normal
development. And so I think the point of departure came initially when people
were pointing to the effects of early deprivation without really understanding
that that is not a model at all for how normal development works. ...
What about the classical music being played to children, the flashcards, the
mobiles? What do you have to say about that?
I think that I have always been skeptical of this movement to accelerate
development among children. In fact, perhaps the most famous child psychologist
-- a fellow named Jean Piaget who was very, very prominent in the field of
child development for many, many years -- when he first came to the United
States and talked about different stages of development that children go
through, typically someone from the audience would say, "Well, that's all well
and good, Dr. Piaget, but how can we speed this up and get our kids to do this
even sooner?" And he referred to that as "the American question."
And in fact, our society has been obsessed with how to give even more
advantages to our children, on the assumption that that enrichment will
accelerate their development. The fact is there's no evidence for that at all,
an example being the classical music exposure, the exposure to Mozart. That was
work done entirely with adults. It was never done with babies. And the effects
lasted ten minutes and the effects were not only short-lived, but very, very
To go from that, as was the case with Georgia Governor Miller, who
systematically gave all infants coming home from the hospital after being born
a classical CD, thinking that somehow exposure to classical music would
stimulate their brain, had no basis in fact whatsoever.
So if we take the flashcards, if we take the videos, if we take the classical
music and we take the French and German lessons for the one-year-old, all of
these things are unlikely to yield long-term effects. I think the biggest
advantage is that babies are being paid attention to by their moms or their
dads or their caregivers in general. It's not that they're necessarily hearing
five different languages or that they're hearing classical music or that
they're having Shakespeare read to them. There's no evidence that exposure to
those things confers any advantage on a child whatsoever.
There is a movement called "I Am Your Child," and there's other groups that
work with this movement that have raised what one could say billions of dollars
for early childhood education programs. What do you think of that?
There are a number of advocacy groups. "I Am Your Child" is one such group
that, on the one hand, I think, has misled the public to some degree by
implying that the first three years of life are a critical period in general.
On the other hand, the big benefit they've done to all of us is to point
attention to the importance of child development. And I think they get a lot of
credit for drawing attention to the importance of thinking that what happens in
those first few years is in fact important and that we should not neglect our
All the evidence suggests that all the things that we should be doing in the
first three years of life have the longest benefits if we continue those things
throughout the course of a child's life. Anyone who has a teenager knows that a
teenager desperately needs contact with his or her parents. They need to be
involved in their family. We would be doing an injustice to our children if we
thought, "Well, their brain is fully formed, so now we should let them develop
on their own."
All parents of teenagers know and all teachers of teenagers know how crucial it
is to guide them, influence them and mold them. As much as they resist being
molded and influenced, the fact is they still need it. They need it because
their brain is still developing, and they need these experiences. A key
experience that they get from adults, for example, is how to become more
planful, how to have foresight, how to look ahead and realize, "What I'm doing
now may have an effect on what happens to me five years from now."
That is extremely difficult for a 13-year-old. But by the time a child is 15 or
16, it's as though a light has gone off and they think, "Oh, my God, I just
realized if I bomb this test, if I do poorly in school, if I do this or if I do
that, that could have complications or implications for what happens later on."
That's not possible early in life. And that's an example where we need to be
with our children all through childhood -- not just the first three years.
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