Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
During the early years of a child’s life, their brains are taking in, processing, and organizing a vast amount of brand new information. Within the first months of life, infants are rapidly forming synapses, which is referred to as synaptogenesis. The process of synaptogenesis continues throughout a person’s entire lifespan, but happens the most and is highly intense during the first year of life. The peak of synaptogenesis varies for each area of the brain. At around three or four months there is a surge of synapse formation in the visual cortex, and the peak happens anywhere between four and twelve months of age. It is at this time that an infant’s brain has 50 percent more synapses in the visual cortex than an adult brain does. The auditory cortex is also quickly developing around the same age. For this reason, the design of the planned space for a new baby (i.e., nursery, playroom, etc.) has more importance than simply looking nice and being comfortable. There are many different themes, color schemes, and décor preferred by expecting parents. This can range from being very neutral and soft in design, to including an array of bold colors and loud patterns, and there are in between styles as well. However, it is important to understand the cognitive effects that nursery design can have on a newborn child.
In 2019, the most popular and recommended color schemes chosen for infant nurseries included soft, neutral, and pastel colors to create a calming environment. However, newborns can distinguish patterns and colors of high contrast (e.g., red, black, and white), they cannot perceive colors other than ones that are bold and bright. This means designing their room with soft and pastel colors is the same as having a space devoid of visual input. By putting an infant where they cannot discern the colors, patterns, and other visual aspects of their environment, they are possibly not receiving the stimulation they need to maximize the growth of their visual cortex. In contrast, there is the possibility of having too much for the infant to focus on and look at which can cause them to become overstimulated; this occurrence does not help them with the development of their visual cortex.
There is evidence to support that designing the baby’s nursery with things they can see very well, such as bold primary colors and geometric patterns, provides the stimulation they need to create synaptic connections; learning is the result of experience and a change in behavior. Though it is possible for a nursery to have too much going on in design, visually or otherwise, which can have an adverse effect and overstimulate the infant. A nursery environment that is too busy can result in diminishing returns. Instead of the baby perceiving the stimuli, creating synaptic connections, and developing their cortices, they reach their perception limit and either change what they are sensing by turning their head if they can or they will become fussy and stressed. However, it is important to keep in mind the possibility of overstimulating your baby while designing the planned space, as well as, monitoring them for signs of being overwhelmed so it is easier to avoid any negative effects.
Creating a stimulating space for an infant to spend their time in has more benefits than it does risks. As previously stated, the first four to twelve months are when babies are at their peak for synaptogenesis within the visual cortex. This is also a time where they are developing preferences for visual input based on their experiences. Thus, if the child cannot perceive any of their room’s colors, shapes, or patterns, they do not build up experience and will not be able to form said preferences. This also means that the experience-dependent neurons in the occipital lobe do not receive the signals they need to develop. Experience-dependency refers to the neurons that engage in synaptogenesis when they receive proper signals, such as the ones involved in vision and language. The role of genetics in development is equally as important as context and experiences. In the textbook, Children’s Thinking, the authors referenced a study done by Alan Slater (1995) which states that newborns have an acuity range between 20/400 and 20/600, which would render them legally blind. While vision acuity rises exponentially during the first year of life, it does not meet adult levels until six years of age. A large contributor to this is the underdeveloped state of the area of the eye that holds the highest percentage of color-perceiving cones. The lack of development in this area of the infants’ eyeballs means that while they are not necessarily colorblind, they do not see color at the same level that adults do. Therefore, newborns are very attracted to high contrasting patterns and bold colors since that is what they can see the best in their early stages of life. Another reason to provide an enriched environment for developing babies is when they have the opportunity to interact with their surroundings and form experience-based knowledge, their thought processes become more patterned and they create schemas based on the stimuli they see.
Providing an enriched environment for developing infants and toddlers allows them to use their senses to maximize their cortical growth and cognitive development. As outlined above, using contrasting patterns and colors will keep the child from becoming understimulated in the space and help their visual cortex to develop. Another way to help them from becoming bored with their surroundings is to incorporate aspects that engage the other senses. Examples of this could be playing music for them, using different scents in the form of live plants, an oil diffuser, etc.; these small factors will make them feel more engaged. A simple way that doesn’t require a lot of effort is simply rearranging the room they spend the most time in. If that room is their bedroom then a quick and easy method is moving their crib to a different location; this provides them with a different viewpoint of the same room which keeps them from becoming bored of their surroundings too quickly. With including aspects meant to stimulate, there is a responsibility on the caretaker to monitor the child for signs of overstimulation. That may take the form of them closing their eyes, turning their heads away, or starting to fuss and cry. If this happens, the best option is to either remove them from the overstimulating area or get rid of the stimulus. This can be done by taking a walk with the child or using music to help them relax, which can still be beneficial to their development!
A good way to help avoid overwhelming a child and also instill a good schedule is to have a routine that distinctly separates stimulating, and relaxing activities from each other. During the day is the best time to bring out high contrast and boldly colored toys and games, listen to music designed to teach or hold their attention, and create a general atmosphere of high stimulation. Then, before bedtime is when to begin dimming the lights, using quiet toys, playing soothing music, and using smells known for their calming effects such as jasmine or lavender to imply that it’s time to begin relaxing and going to bed. The context and environment a baby is raised within have an enormous effect on the way their brains grow and develop; the design of their space is as important as any other aspect of raising children.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018). Children′s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth ed.). Thousand Oaks, Canada: SAGE Publications.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020, Feb 24). Infant Perception & Cognition [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle. https://moodle.pacificu.edu/mod/resource/view.php?id=546555
Kleinknecht, E. (2020, Feb 10). Orientation to the study of development [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle. https://moodle.pacificu.edu/mod/resource/view.php?id=543744
Lascurain, K. (2019, May 2). The 11 best no-fail nursery paint colors. The Spruce. https://www.thespruce.com/best-nursery-paint-colors-4587280
Reload Digital. (2018, October 8). Don’t stunt your child’s development! Listen to the science behind nursery decoration. Retrieved from https://www.vinylimpression.co.uk/blogs/blog/don-t-stunt-your-child-s-development-listen-to-the-science-behind-nursery-decoration