The work of the brain at birth is to begin laying down an internal infrastructure of language that enables the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose—which is to connect.
Watch the drive to connect in action in three month old Piper’s focused alertness and vocalization as her daddy reads The Hungry Caterpillar to her.
According to Susan Brink, author of The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months, hearing develops long before birth. The newborn, already accustomed to the sounds of the muffled maternal voice, recognizes and responds to a mother’s voice first. Beyond a mother’s voice, the sounds in a baby’s world are a meaningless din. But here is where the real learning begins.
“…lest anyone think these undifferentiated noises are useless, think again. With an innate skill that would be the envy of a statistics student, newborns are keeping track of probabilities; setting up neural connections in response to the patterns of the words they hear. They are learning where one word ends and another begins before they utter their first da-da.”[i]
Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist and leading expert on speech development at the University of Washington, has discovered that babies are born with the ability to hear the sound distinctions of every language that exists, but by ten months of age—maybe sooner—that ability is lost, “pruned away by a brain eager to cultivate what will be needed and get rid of what won’t.” [ii]
Human babies arrive in this world poised to learn.
At birth, Brink claims, babies possess “…billions of brain cells, or neurons, but little in the way of an internal communication network. Immediately, every interaction with the world–each touch, word, smell, look—helps the baby lay down an infrastructure of dendrites, the branched projections that receive and send signals between neurons.”[iii] The science that enables us to understand that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, is clear and its implications are profound.
But perhaps even more profound than the fact of how soon learning begins is the beautiful metaphor that the brain cell reveals to us, for it organically demonstrates a truth about what it means to be human.
The work of the brain at birth is to begin making connections that enable the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose, to love. As parents it is important for us to understand that learning is a drive organically rooted in a child’s physical being, and its ultimate aim is to create a meaningful life. When we speak, sing, and read to our child from birth, this loving way of engaging builds neural pathways in the brain that become the physical infrastructure for all future learning and loving.
Learning, therefore, is connection, rooted in relationship.
Major religions throughout history have proclaimed a life of love as the highest human calling, and the observations of those who work in hospice care are equally compelling. Paradoxically, death often illuminates what is most important in life, and those who accompany the dying in life’s final stage are privileged to bear witness to their reflections as they look back over their lives. Social worker Grace Bluerock wrote,
“For six years, I had the amazing gift of being able to experience with people their final days and weeks. For most, these last days and weeks were spent looking back over their lives in deep contemplation. Many regrets were expressed, and many tears were shed. As a hospice social worker, I got a front row seat into the lives of those precious souls as they attempted to come to terms with how they spent their time on this earth. Everyone’s story was different, but each held common threads and similar regrets.” [iv]
The number one regret Bluerock observed in the dying during her years of service is that people wished they had loved more deeply. No one dies wishing they had made more money or worked harder. Ironically, at the moment of our departure from life we are perhaps most conscious of the instinct that existed as an unconscious urge from the very beginning—the longing to connect.
Our very purpose is imbedded in the work of our brain cells as we enter the world, and its function is a metaphor for what we as humans are destined to do.
A child’s drive to connect with his parents is important to understand, as it is the foundation for all learning. From birth on, babies are at work making connections and building the mental and emotional infrastructure that will make sense of the world and carry them into life. As parents of a newborn, we are that world, and the primary responsibility to nurture this process is ours. Speaking, singing, and reading aloud honor our infant’s drive to bond with us and nurtures the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry him into future learning and life.
[i] Susan Brink. “Through a Newborn’s Senses.” Los Angeles Times, May 11. 2013.
[iv] Grace Bluerock. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grace-bluerock/5-most-valuable-life-lessons-i-learned-hospice-worker_b_7499030.html