Bioengineering expert John Medina had just given a lecture to the National Governor's Association, and a recognized lawmaker had a pressing question. What can I do as a parent to help ensure that when my child grows up, recruiters from America's elite institutions will line up at my door?
Dr. Medina – a specialist in early brain development – fixed his gaze on the man. "Do you want to know, do you really want to know?"
The politician's eyes showed he could hardly wait for the scientifically informed answer.
"Okay, go home and love your wife."
Cutting edge brain research increasingly leads us to that conclusion, says Medina, the founding director of Seattle's Talaris Research Institute. Medina's new venture teams up scientists and educators in an attempt to transform discoveries about the mind and brain of children into practical tools for parents and teachers.
But does it really matter to a baby's brain if mom and dad are in a loving, married relationship?
"The best evidence we have suggests that one of the best predictors of cognitive success is a really odd thing," Medina says. "It's not buying your baby a mobile; it's not even getting them to speak French by the age of one and a half. It actually has to do with the emotional stability of the home environment."
Demographic research indicates that a married relationship is the best foundation for an emotionally stable environment, according to Linda Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and co-author of "The Case for Marriage."
"It's very clear that children who are raised in married, two-parent families do better on a whole range of outcomes," Waite says. "That includes school performance, high school graduation, college attendance, the kinds of jobs that they get and the extent to which they are productive adults later."
But simply having parents who are married is not enough to ensure success, research indicates. "A healthy marriage really counts as a protective factor" in a child's development, says Kathleen Kovner-Kline, a professor of psychiatry at the Dartmouth College Medical School. "There are biochemical traces in children that show what a healthy environment does and also what the absence of that environment does."
Scientists in the Crib
What makes babies so vulnerable to mom and dad's relationship with each other?
Infants are surveyors of their environment, much like scientists. "They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments," according to the authors of "The Scientist in the Crib," Patricia K. Kuhl and Andrew N. Meltzoff of the University of Washington, and Alison Gopnik of the University of California at Berkeley.
Medina points out that this infant "scientist," not surprisingly, has an innate desire to survive and constantly is searching for clues that indicate he will remain safe. "Children look to their parents and the relationship they have with each other to assess whether that's true or not," Medina says. "If indeed there is an assessment of stability, the brain works in one way, but if there is an assessment of instability, the brain starts working in another way and starts doing other types of things."
Stress in the home environment has a particular effect on the infant's ability to function, Medina explains. Babies can "pick up toxic marital conflict" from as young as six months, he says.
In fact, a baby's chemical makeup can serve as a barometer of his parent's marriage. "We could just take a urine sample of the kids over 24 hours and find out how that marriage is doing," Medina says.
Kuhl points out that a baby's brain is a continual work in progress. "Even before birth the brain's zillions of neurons, or nerve cells, are reaching out to each other to make connections, or synapses, forming the intricate wiring that guides all life," she writes.
The "plasticity" of the brain, its ability to be molded, is so great that it even has "the ability to rewire itself...," Medina observes. "So if it's that plastic," he concludes, "I can't help but think that other types of environmental inputs, things that are much more critical to its survival, would have more of a profound impact."
Research suggests that stress can alter the ability of the brain to make new neurons. It also can alter the ability of existing neurons to hook up with each other correctly. According to Medina, "there is even some suggestion that stress can alter the ability of neurons to migrate to the specific areas where they are supposed to be during brain development."
What's a parent to do?
The irony for parents concerned about providing a healthy environment for their kids is that the level of marital conflict tends to go up nine-fold with the introduction of the first child, according to University of Washington professor John Gottman. Known for his breakthrough research on marriage and parenting, Gottman says that the two stages in a child's life when the parents face the highest risk of divorce are at less than two years of age and at puberty.
But Gottman believes that this data ultimately can be a marriage-saver if parents are taught the skills necessary to cope before the storm comes.
Gottman's extensive research confirms that the emotional stability of the home is the fulcrum on which a child's security rests.
"In preparation for children you shouldn't just have a Lamaze class," Medina says. "You should be seriously thinking about the emotional climate that you are making in your own home."
For his research, Gottman has developed a "love lab" at the University of Washington, a furnished apartment equipped with scientific equipment to monitor the physiological and emotional responses of couples as they interact with each other.
The studies give overwhelming evidence that the first order of business for any couple is to ensure that the woman can articulate her needs. But the surest way to predict marital success, according to Gottman's research, is this: If the husband has the ability to communicate to the wife that she is being heard – that he genuinely is listening.
Many people underestimate the level of support that the mother requires, maintains Dartmouth's Kovner-Kline.
"To the extent that a healthy marriage is supportive of the mother, it's also supportive of the mother-child dyad and therefore the baby's brain development," she says. "It sets up a whole system – what we would call a homeostasis – a healthy, stable environment where there is a lot of reciprocal affection and a lot of social support."
"Motherhood is a demanding job, and mothers in isolation don't do it that well," she adds. "They're stressed; they have so many things to worry about; they get overly tired; they may be susceptible to mood swings and post-partem depression."
A century of research has confirmed that a mother's early nurturing helps a child "regulate its own internal environment and emotions, which produces a more appropriate response to the external environment, including threats," Kovner-Kline says, citing the work of the late American psychologist Harry Harlow.
During those early stages of development a child's brain is being "hard-wired" as cells connect with each other. While scientists still are not sure how emotions affect that wiring, they know that there are sensitive stages that set a long-term pattern.
Kovner-Kline notes, for example, there are kinds of repairable blindness that must be addressed at the early portion of a child's brain development. If the eye is repaired later, the person may still be blind because the pathway from the retina to the optic nerve is not developed.
"It's like the track got buried," she says. Likewise, in the early stages of a child's emotional development, a track is laid in the brain that establishes what early psychological theorists called "basic trust." The parents' nurturing response to needs that the child cannot personally satisfy develops that trust.
"That gets wired deeply in the brain," Kovner-Kline says. "We don't know everything about it, but when you see a child that doesn't have it, it's a striking thing."
But most parents harbor at least some regrets about their relationship and how they've cared for their children. Is it ever too late? Does "hard-wiring" mean permanent?
What this data should not do, Kovner-Kline says, is "breed enormous fear in people who think they've goofed" during a certain period, nor should it "create the illusion of 'I stayed home with my child the first three years of their life, therefore they'll be fine and it doesn't make a difference what I do now.'"
She notes that "there is a sensitive period where the brain is in a more primal and primitive state," but in most cases, with time, healing can occur. "If your child is about to go off to college and you're realizing, 'Gosh, we've never really had a sensitive, responsive relationship, you just don't have that much time to make it up,'" she says. "But if your child is five and you're realizing, 'I've been working too much, I'm never there,' you have more time to turn those things around."
Nevertheless, there are degrees of impact that affect the brain's wiring. "If you're talking about something like severe abuse and neglect," Kovner-Kline cautions, "some of those things don't turn around very well. It tends to be related to the severity."
How much do parents need to know about their child's brain?
"I think if they understood that their behavior can directly affect the synapses that are growing inside the kid's head, I think they would pause and take a little more seriously," Medina says.
Gottman says that when he discusses the emotional aspects of marriage in his lectures it often causes men to lose interest and begin wondering what is for dinner. But when he starts to mention numbers that show stress spiking and brains engaging, he grabs their attention.
The bare facts, as indicated by science, seem to motivate many men, Medina observes. "If a father really understood that if he says, 'Yes dear,' when his wife brings up a whole number of issues, that it actually could save their marriage – and here is the statistical model to prove it – it could make a difference," he says. "If indeed they could be shown that by showing empathy they could actually reduce the number of stress hormones per unit in their kids' urine, some fathers might change their behavior.
These studies have implications for public policy as well, Medina maintains. Adoption agencies, for example, should hold up this body of research as a standard when they search for parents, he contends. "The research would suggest that those families which can create emotionally stable environments and have the best ability to project empathy are going to make the best parents," he says.
But good policy requires correct interpretations of the data. In 1998, Georgia Governor Zell Miller latched on to studies that seemed to show a correlation between intelligence and exposure to classical music. State funds were to be allocated to ensure that the parents of every newborn child received a classical music tape or CD. The authors of the studies cited by Miller, however, were skeptical of the plan. They said their work shows that listening casually to the music – as opposed to playing it – has no effect at all for children."
"It certainly changed behavior," Kovner-Kline observed. "More babies listened to Mozart, but whether or not they are smarter is open to question."
People do respond to scientific research, especially in the short-term, she notes. So what should the world know – or at least be more convinced of than ever before – as a result of advances in our knowledge of early brain development?
"The message to the public that you want to get out is that enduring relationships matter, and they matter from the beginning," says Kovner-Kline.Enudring relationships matter
Enduring relationships provide a social glue, she says. "But they also have an impact at the level of biochemical health, for creating the optimal soil for the development of a child's brain in its fullest sense – not just its ability to do math and spelling, but its ability to have self-control, to take turns, to pay attention, to manage adversity."
But this knowledge also draws our attention to some hard questions, Kovner-Kline says. Can you have it all? "One of the things that I'm struck by as a professional woman who is also a parent and a spouse is that my generation of women had tremendous advantages to achieve so much in the intellectual realms," she says. "But the reality is there is only 24 hours in the day."
We've now established as a society that women do have cerebral capacities and professional abilities, she says, "but the problem is we also have these other capacities that other people don't have quite as much of. We can develop infant-child relationships that are incredibly important and that matter a lot, that you don't get paid for."
The next stage for women's social development, she says, "is for society to recognize them and value that ability to nurture children."
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