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The Amazing Human Brain and Human Development


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Lesson 5: Plasticity, Memory, and Cortical Modulation in the Brain
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Plasticity, Memory, and Cortical Modulation in the Brain

The human brain works through inhibitory mechanisms. The majority of the brain's structural organization takes place in childhood. This development is characterized by both sequential development and "sensitivity" (from the brainstem to the cortex), and by the "use-dependent" organization of these various brain areas.

As the brain grows and organizes, the higher, more complex areas begin to control and modulate the more reactive, primitive functioning areas of the lower parts. The person becomes less reactive, less impulsive, and more thoughtful. Any factors that increase the activity or reactivity of the brainstem (e.g., chronic traumatic stress) or decrease the moderating capacity of the limbic or cortical areas (e.g., neglect, brain injury, mental retardation) will increase an individual's aggression, impulsivity, and capacity to be violent (see the graphic below).

Cortical Modulation Is Age-Related

The capacity to moderate frustration, impulsivity, aggression, and violent behavior is age-related. With sufficient motor, sensory, emotional, cognitive, and social experiences during infancy and childhood, the mature brain develops (in a use-dependent fashion) a mature, humane capacity to tolerate frustration, contain impulsivity, and channel aggressive urges.

A frustrated three-year-old (with a relatively unorganized cortex) will have a difficult time modulating the reactive, brainstem-mediated state of arousal and will scream, kick, bite, throw, and hit. However, the older child, when frustrated, may feel like kicking, biting, and spitting, but has "built in" the capacity to modulate and inhibit those urges.

As the brain develops and the more complex areas organize, they begin to moderate and control the more primitive and reactive lower portions of the brain. Image courtesy of Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
As the brain develops and the more complex areas organize, they begin to moderate and control the more primitive and reactive lower portions of the brain. Image courtesy of Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

Sequential Development

All theoretical frameworks in developmental psychology describe this sequential development of ego-functions and super-ego. Simply stated, inhibitory capabilities gradually develop so as to modulate the more primitive, less mature, reactive impulses of the human brain.

Loss of cortical function through any variety of pathological processes (e.g., stroke, dementia) results in regression. Further, any deprivation of optimal developmental experience that leads to the underdevelopment of cortical, sub-cortical, and limbic areas will result in persistence of primitive, immature behavioral reactivity and predisposition to aggressive behavior.

Coming Up

So, what do you make of all this? How is the information coming together in your brain? How do you think this new knowledge will help you in your work with children? Please visit the Message Board and share your thoughts.

In our next (and last) lesson, we'll go over some of the many resources available for learning more about children and the incredible brains we all possess. We'll tie up the course with a few brainy factoids, and you and your brain will be on your way.

Image courtesy of Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
Image courtesy of Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.


 


Use it or Lose it

A key neurodevelopmental factor that plays a major role in determining the brain's moderating capacity is its amazing ability to organize and change in a "use-dependent" fashion.

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