Understanding the Brain and Behavior

By Meredith White-McMahon, RYI
Posted on October 31, 2013, in Neuroscience

 Anyone who works with young people knows that it can have some very challenging moments. Trying to figure out why kids behave the way they do and what is going on in their heads can be time consuming and more than a little frustrating. Until very recently, science couldn't tell us much about why they behaved they way they did or how to deal with it. We used observations and educated guesses and hoped for the best. Now, neuroscience and various disciplines within the field of psychology can help us better see how the brain influences behavior and help us improve our understanding of the learning process.

Despite living in a society that seems to cherish individuality, our young people are social and learn and grow best in the company of others. From the moment that we are born, everyone and everything in their environment influences us. Our brains create our selves in the context of these relationships and encounters. We are our experiences and they shape who we are and who we will become.

How our brains develop in the context of our relationships impact how well we form attachments, how well we learn, and how we are affected by, and cope with, factors like success, challenge, isolation, mental illness, stress, and trauma. However, becoming the result of our relationships and experiences can be a double-edged sword. They can create healthy, functional individuals and healthy brain growth, or dysregulated, dysfunctional, and unhealthy individuals with far from optimal brain growth and development.

Neuroscientists have known for decades that through experience, the brain was changeable or neuroplastic in the early years of development. Over 50 years ago, neuroscientists realized that brain cells, or neurons, were able to change and modify their activity in response to environmental experiences. Neurons that fired together, wired together. The problem was that they also believed that after the critical period of those early years, the brain was no longer capable of change. Based on these ideas, most research and therapeutic efforts focused on early childhood, believing that by the teenage years, learning and behavior were entrenched and there was little hope of change. Fortunately, new science is emerging and shaping a more positive outlook of our ability to change throughout our lives.

The advent of advanced neuroimaging technologies in the last 30 years has shown us that while natural developmental milestones and sensitive periods of enhanced neuroplasticity exist, new neurons continue to appear in parts of the brain related to new learning and that new neural networks appear and grow throughout life. Instead of our brains being the individual, isolated, self-organizing systems that neuroscientists assumed them to be, we now know that our brains are dependent on interactions with others and supportive environments for survival, growth, and well-being.

This is great news for anyone working with challenging young people because we are, in essence, trying to change their brains every day. In addition to better understanding that our brains change and rewire in response to our experiences, the more we know about the developing brain, the more about we will be able to help kids build positive relationships with others, manage oppositional behavior, understand that the brain is a work in progress and that brain maturation influences learning readiness, see the impact of pressure and stress on performance and learning, and help kids get and keep attention in a positive way. The more we know and understand about the development of the brain and how it learns, the more successful we will be in activating and guiding change within the brain and encouraging growth and development to facilitate new learning and more pro-social behavior.

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