Understanding Your Child’s Brain
Neuroscience and parenting educator Nathan Wallis explains the 4 parts of the human brain and how this develops in your baby
7 min read
Understanding Your Child’s Brain
Before we talk a bit more about your baby’s brain, we are going to have a tiny little science lesson about the structure of a brain. It’s not going to be complicated. It’s just simply telling you that you’ve got four brains inside your head. Yes, they come together as one brain, but it’s easily divided into four parts.
Brains number one, two and three that your baby has, your dog has those brains as well. So, they are important but really it’s brain number four that we get excited about because it is the distinctively human brain (other mammals have a small amount of this brain but nowhere near as much as humans!).
How your child will develop literacy skills – reading and writing – and everything they are going to learn at school is in brain number four – the dog wouldn’t do well at any subject on a school report!
So brain number four is the one we tend to focus on as parents. That’s the one we have the most influence over and the brain we want when talking about a child reaching their full potential. It’s basically brain number four that’s going to make your child intelligent and allow them to get a good job. Brain number four is also going to stop them going to prison because it allows you to control your emotions and have empathy for other people. All the good stuff is in brain number four.
What about the other ‘brains’?
Brain number one
This brain is at the base of your neck. That’s your survival brain. It keeps your heart beating and keeps you breathing – all your survival stuff. That’s why it’s in charge because survival is the number one prime directive for being a human. We may think the frontal cortex or brain four is the important one because it does higher intelligence, but you can live a long time without higher intelligence – survival is in fact the most important so its in charge! So at the base, the oldest brain, the first one to evolve, is the brainstem – the survival brain.
Brain number two
Brain number two is the bulgy bit at the back of your head, sometimes jokingly just called the sports brain. This is because it’s your center of movement and coordination. Just think of it as the movement brain.
So brain number one is your survival brain and brain number two is movement. If that’s all you’ve got – then you are a reptile! Therefore it can also be called the reptilian brain because literally that’s all a reptile has: survival and movement.
Brain number three
Brain number three – the limbic system – is all about your emotions. Your pet lizard is a reptile, so it’s got survival and movement and that’s all. But your pet dog is a mammal, so he’s got survival, movement… and emotion. All three brains. So your dog loves you – but the lizards motives are less obvious!
Brain number four
Your children are human beings so they’ve got a survival, movement, emotion and thinking and learning brain. That’s what we call the neuro-sequential brain. ‘Neuro’ means brain and sequential means ‘a certain order’. So ‘neuro-sequential means brain order and the brain order is always the same – from the bottom to the top.
Evolving from bottom to top
Your brains have evolved from the bottom to the top. Brain number one is the oldest brain and brain number four is the most recently evolved. The order in which these brains comes ‘on-line’ across your life is always from bottom to top.
Your can see this in human development. Language is in brain number four. No babies are born talking. You’ve got to build brains one, two and three before you can access brain number four. It’s like building a house. You have to build the floors and the walls first. You can’t go straight to the roof! Similarly with movement being in brain number two you don’t have babies who walk home from the maternity hospital. Humans have to go through brains one, two, three before being able to access number four – in that order.
How your baby’s brain develops
First 6 months
How does a human baby survive? Well, basically they get someone to fall so madly and deeply in love with them that that person is willing to die for them. One of baby’s methods of survival is to be able to hold their eyes in one spot an gaze at the caregiver. This is because whenever you look at a baby you release a hormone called oxytocin, which is the bonding and attachment hormone. So by simply locking eyes with your baby, you’re already falling in love and ensuring the baby’s survival!
So your baby, by being able to lock their eyes on you is a clever method of getting you to fall in love with them. That’s their really important job in the first six months. That’s just how a human brain starts – with a relationship with one other person and unconditional love.
Once that baby has got that attachment secured at around six months, you’ll see them start to focus on their motor skill development. During the first six months of the baby’s life, they’re quite happy to be a blob in your arms a lot of the time.
Fast forward another six months and in the next 12 months that baby becomes a small person who can walk, crawl, climb and use fine motor movements… all of these complex motor skills develop typically between six and eighteen months.
18 months to 2 years
Around eighteen months to two years old, the emotional brain moves into centre stage of development. This is the ‘tantrumming two’s’ or the ‘terrific two’s’ depending on your perspective. But it’s a very emotional age because all of your emotions come from brain number three but your ability to control emotions comes from brain number four… and that hasn’t really come online yet!
This is why it’s hard work being two because you’ve got all of the emotions of an adult without really any ability to control your temper or dial down those emotions. The parents need to be brain number four for the child and basically spend an intensive year showing the child how to control emotion!
That frontal cortex is not going to be fully online and they’re not really going to reach adulthood until somewhere around mid to late twenties (on average) – but it does get less intense as that brain number four starts to come online during later early childhood!
7 years old
At around the age of seven, your child is going to be transitioning into that brain number four more clearly. That’s traditionally when we introduce literacy and numeracy and all that sort of cognitive function. From two until seven, your child is still primarily in their emotional brain, brain number three, so is better to focus on imagination, play and creativity.
From seven to twenty-seven they are bringing brain number four online so by the time your child is twenty-seven approximately, they’ve got all four.
So that’s the basic structure of your brain from brains one to four. The neuro-sequential model.