Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
Earlier isn’t always Better
Do you believe that exposing your infant to a certain experience earlier in their developmental journey is better than later exposure of the same experience? Well, if so you may be at risk of delaying or interfering with the mastery of necessary skills that allow your infant to develop normally. Early introduction to difficult skills can backfire in the long run. As a parent it may become difficult at times to decide whether or not your infant is ready to tackle a new experience in life. But, with the rise and shift of research focusing towards cognitive development, trajectories have been discovered through thorough investigation. Scientists can aid parents of neonates to properly guide them towards developmental success for their infant. It is important that parents take into consideration the fascinating information derived from studies regarding early exposure and its negative effect because your own child can be at stake. Every parent wants to give birth to a healthy child and guide them towards normal species- typical development so why not utilize the knowledge researchers grant the public with.
People may feel that the earlier an experience is exposed in an infant’s life, then the better. This is the case for certain skills that are learned in a post- birth period described as the “blooming phase”. The blooming phase occurs during infancy and early childhood. It is known to be the period where infants “have the capability of making many synaptic connections, more than needed to survive” (Kleinknecht, 2020). The blooming phase increases drastically in the first year of life and peaks around preschool or kindergarten. The blooming phase is where sensitive periods are active. “For a specific skill or ability is the time in development when it is most easily required” (Bjourkland and Causey, 2018, p. 37) defines a sensitive period. The sensitive period is the window of opportunity, the point at which a child is maximally prepared to acquire a skill easily. This is supported by high metabolism. Most of the body’s energy is being focused on the skill that the infant is attempting to gain. The blooming phase is critical for an infant to acquire a skill due to the narrowed focus the infant has on trying to master the skill. In such a specific context, this should be the time caregivers introduce a skill early in an infant’s life so complications don’t arise between other skills along their developmental journey. For example, poor functioning of specific sensory skills doesn’t leave room for proper development of sensory skills to develop without competition for metabolic resources. If multiple sensory systems are competing for resources then maximum skill potential can not be reached. On the contrary, earlier still isn’t always better.
Earlier introductions to skills aren’t always better because it can prolong the mastery of certain biologically secondary skills which is a result of the early training of biologically primary skills. What parent wouldn’t want their kid advanced or ahead of their peers in certain skills. It is tempting for parents to prompt the development of a skill or skills but a respected amount of exposure of the particular skill during a time period is detrimental to the proper cognitive development of a child. A mixture of two competing entities can cause major disruption in the regular cognitive growth pattern children undergo. Biologically primary skills are the skills children acquire as a necessity to aid survival. As age increases, the sophistication of the skill does too which soon acts as the foundation for biologically secondary skills. Earlier introductions can inhibit learning processes for these biologically aiding skills, hinder the proficiency of certain skills, and delay the achievement of mastering a skill or skills.
It is known that in all vertebrates that the auditory system develops before the visual system. Robert Lickliter (1990) hypothesized that the delayed development of sight in bobwhite quails will allow the auditory system to develop without competing for metabolic resources. Lickliter demonstrated in his study, that the timing of perceptual experience for baby bobwhite quails is crucial. He wanted to discover what effects do early exposure of a sensation have on baby bobwhite quails. “Lickliter (1990) developed a procedure whereby he removed part of the eggshell and provided a visual experience to bobwhite quail 2 to 3 days before hatching.” (Bjourklund and Causey, 2018, p. 38). He discovered that the exposure to a visual experience early in a bobwhite quail “enhanced visual abilities, but at the expense of auditory abilities, which are important in the chick’s development.” (Bjourklund and Causey, 2018). This study indicates that “perceptual experience is critically important and that earlier experience is not always better experience.” (Bjourklund and Causey, 2018, p. 38). As you can see from Lickliter’s reliable and valid study that early introductions to a sensory system can impact the proper sensory development of a newborn.
Furthermore, the exposure to early cognitive abilities during an infant’s developmental stage can be detrimental later on in the infant’s life. Whether that is pre- birth or post birth exposure. Neonates are blessed with an adaptive immaturity of cognition. Ironic to think that cognitive immaturity is a blessing but in the case of babies, immaturity serves an important function. “Young infants’ relatively poor perceptual abilities protect their nervous systems from sensory overload; preschool children’s tendency to overestimate their physical and cognitive skills causes them to persist (and, thus, to improve) at difficult tasks; and infants’ slow information processing seems to prevent them from establishing intellectual habits that would be detrimental later on, when their life conditions are considerably different.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, p. 7). This quote consistently examines the benefits of how infants’ cognitive immaturity serves them positively rather than negatively. In the case of earlier exposure to cognitive tasks such as an infant learning multiple perceptual abilities, he/ she may be at risk for overloading their sensory system, possibly decreasing the chance of the sensory systems to reach their maximum sensory capabilities. Early exposure to intellectual habits can backfire in the long run and could be capable of altering the developmental process later in life due to the early habits developed through infancy and early childhood. The earlier an intellectual ability is experienced within one’s life the more engraved it’ll be in the infant’s mind, possibly harming the infant developmentally.
As many people may have thought before, “earlier is better”, it is safe to state that “earlier isn’t better”. Early exposure to experience can be detrimental to an infants’ developmental path and could cause disarray in the infant’s ability to properly reach maximal potential when learning a new skill or ability. This earlier exposure can cause cognitive setbacks instead of cognitive enhancement. A recommendation for primary caretakers or temporary caretakers who are battling with the idea of early exposure, take into consideration the scientific research that has been put into the discovering of growth trajectories and milestones for the human species. The proper utilization of this knowledge will help caretakers determine when their infant is ready to tackle a new experience. Caretakers who don’t take into consideration the growth trajectories are at risk of interfering with the proper development of their child.
Bjorklund, D. F., Causey, K. B. (2018). Chapter 1: Introduction to cognitive development.
Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences. (pp. 1-22). SAGE Publications.
Bjorklund, D. F., Causey, K. B. (2018). Chapter 2: Biological bases of cognitive development.
Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences. (pp. 23- 64). SAGE Publications.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020, February 19th). Biological bases of cog dev (PowerPoint slides).