Until as recently as the 1970s, it was widely believed that humans are born with a blank slate—that our personalities, preferences, intelligences, and so forth, form and develop as we grow older. While this idea has been largely discredited through brain imaging and research, those same techniques have given us an even better understanding of the incredible amount of learning that happens in the early years of life.
The human brain quadruples in size by the time a child is 5 years old, reaching 90% of its adult size. By the age of 3, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult brain. The reduction in activity is fundamental to our ability to function. As we grow older, we acquire more ways to make sense of the world, more categories into which we can sort our daily experiences. Life becomes less chaotic because we learn how to distinguish the important from the trivial. Our brain activity becomes more efficient.
We lose half our neurons by the time we reach adulthood. But whenever I watch a child encounter a new idea, feel a new texture, hear a new sound, I can’t help but think about what was encoded in those lost neurons. Children have the ability to be completely interested in so many things, and often times, so many seemingly completely uninteresting things. This feeling of loss is even stronger when I’m with a child who’s still mesmerized by the familiar. When was the last time that I was so fascinated by a story that I wanted to hear it every day, for weeks at a time? How often do I experience wonder, now that I’m a grown-up?
What did you see in the first picture when you, perhaps, didn’t know what it was? A kitty? A person? A rabbit? Flowers? A little girl in a dress? A map of the Iberian Peninsula?
“What’s that?” Parents, how many times a day do you hear this question?
“That’s a cow.”
How long did you study the first picture? And how long did you look at the outline of the cow in the second? How many things did you see in the first one, and how many things do you see in the second?
What do we lose when we’ve found the right answer?