Nathan Wallis - Born To Connect – How Love Grows Babies’ Brains

Nathan Wallis is an ex-university lecturer in human development and a specialist in neuroscience. He has a background as a child and family therapist, primary school and early childhood teacher. He has served in the past as lead trainer and board member for Brainwave Trust – which disseminates neuroscientific research findings.

Born to connect – How love grows babies’ brains, is a wonderful example of why we do what we do and reinforces PORSE values and philosophy.

Nathan is currently Managing Director of X Factor Education and works in New Zealand and Australia training professionals and parents in the application of neuroscience. As well as his own three children, Nathan has a history with, and a passion for foster children.

The last twenty or so years has seen an explosion of information about the human brain. It is estimated that in the 1990s alone we learnt the equivalent amount of information about the brain that we had in the previous 300 years! We are literally living in the ‘age of the brain’, learning new information at almost a daily rate. So far what we’ve learned is this – it’s far too complex for us to ever understand it fully!

But thanks to the common use of brain scans we can now be much more informed about the biology and physiology of learning. The technological advances in this area allow us to see inside the brain in live time while thinking takes place, instead of speculating about how a live brain might work based on the dissection of a dead one. This has led to some radical findings that help to support age-old practices related to caregiving and learning, as well as seriously challenge others.

So, how does the presence of a secure relationship with one key adult in early childhood, create clever babies?

What the literature shows quite clearly, is children do best when raised by the most responsive and attuned person available to them – regardless of gender or biology. This is very likely (for multitudes of reasons) to be the mother, but it doesn’t have to be. For this reason I’ll occasionally use the term ‘dyad’ in this article, rather than ‘mother and baby’, and although it’s a hard word to pin down to a single definition, I use the term ’intelligence’ to mean the full development of your brain – or to be specific the full development of your frontal cortex.

Paul McLean noticed in the 1960’s that the brain can be divided into three parts: section one – reptile (brainstem), section two – mammal (limbic) and section three – human (frontal cortex). The brain has evolved and develops during childhood – from bottom section one, to top section three. A reptile has only section one, a mammal primarily sections one and two, and humans have all three sections.

Section one (the brainstem) is the first part of the brain to develop and its main job is survival; it keeps your heart beating and generally keeps you alive. It really kicks into gear when the human stress response is activated and fight, flight or freeze takes over. It also includes the cerebellum or ‘movement’ brain (that bit that bulges out of the back of your head above your neck).

Section two (the limbic system) is the emotional brain. Mammals have an emotional brain in order to raise their young. Reptiles don’t need it as they generally don’t raise their young – they lay eggs and leave them to it and I admit I have some parenting days that make that sound like an attractive option. As mammals a lot of our brain develops outside the womb so we need a limbic system to nurture our child’s brain into being. It is really this biological need to grow the brain outside of the womb that gives us mammals the amazing gift of childhood and parenthood.

Section three, the frontal cortex is the human section that is responsible for all higher intellect, including advanced social skills like empathy and emotional regulation.

In the 1990’s scientists made a massive discovery about the brain. They discovered that the third section, the frontal cortex, is somewhat ‘optional’ in development. In simple terms, the first two sections will largely develop so long as the child is kept alive. However, section three is not needed to survive (you can live a long time without reading or writing and without empathy or compassion) so it is set up to be responsive to the environment and generally only reaches full fruition if the right conditions are experienced in the early years.

And guess what ninety percent of these ‘right conditions’ are about? Answer: an attuned relationship with one key adult. Although it can vary, the optimal period for this is generally accepted as being the first thousand days (covering conception until about 2.5 years of age). While current research suggests that it is not impossible to develop this section of the brain (frontal cortex) later in life, it is much more difficult, expensive and time consuming.

So exactly how does relationship security create intelligence or a ‘clever baby’? Essentially, it is the dyad – or key adult-child relationship – that provides the attunement, safety and predictability that enables the ‘right conditions’ for the frontal cortex to develop. Put another way, its relationship security that throughout human evolutionary history has calmed the brainstem so that the frontal cortex çan develop.

It’s important to know that the brainstem and frontal cortex are not designed to be both fully online at the same time (you can’t solve an algebra problem when being chased by a tiger!) An easy way to visualize this is to imagine the brainstem and frontal cortex on a set of scales. If one is highly active, the other is not.

There isn’t really a competition between the two, because the brainstem is in charge of this process and wins every time. In fact, you only get to access the learning part of your brain – the frontal cortex – when your brainstem decides it’s safe and lets you.

This may seem backwards since I’ve already said that all the flash things like higher intelligence are in the frontal cortex – so why is that not in charge? Basically, because survival is everybody’s prime concern; everything else you do depends on that. Learning and the frontal cortex are optional extras.

This is useful in understanding the biological mechanism operating in the first thousand days, that contributes to how much frontal cortex develops – or how ‘intelligent’ the baby will be. In simple terms, the calmer the survival (reptile) brain remains in the first thousand days, the better. The frontal cortex will flourish when the child gathers data from the environment that tells them they are living in a safe world. Then the focus is not on survival.

The default setting for a human is to have a survival brain rather than a full cortex as this is the pattern that has served us best over the last few million years or so. It’s really recent in evolutionary terms that we have had the luxury of not needing our survival brain on full throttle. It is the consistent, attuned and responsive calming of this brainstem over the first thousand days by one key, sensitive adult that allows the child’s brain and physiology to override this default setting and develop a full frontal cortex.

So the development of empathy, self-regulation, self-control, learning dispositions, higher intellect and all the other skills that will eventually render them ‘ready for school’ (and ready for a successful, healthy life) have their roots in the baby feeling safe, in partnership, loved and adored in the first thousand days.

So why one key, sensitive adult? Why can’t it be a team of people? Doesn’t it take a village to raise a child?

Indeed it does take a village, but only when viewed over the entire childhood. It is the role of the village in most cultures to wrap support around the dyad (the adult and the baby) in at least the first 18 months of the child’s life. Humans have been experiencing this for millions of evolutionary years. So much so that it is now built into the actual biology, or genes, of the child to expect this experience of a secure attachment relationship with one key adult.

By fulfilling the baby’s drive toward one key relationship, the sensitive caregiver is meeting a primary need that has evolved in humans over millions of years – an attuned, responsive and predictable relationship with primarily one person. They thereby greatly enhance the child’s chances of reaching their full genetic potential and developing higher intelligence.

With no more than four children in care at any one time, PORSE Educators and Nannies dedicate themselves to providing safe, calm and familiar environments. Families who choose PORSE are assured their children will receive the most valuable gifts to enhance their wellbeing – special relationships with one key adult and quality time. PORSE Educators and Nannies are passionate in their fundamental belief that ‘home is where the start is’. They benefit from ongoing support and free training from qualified trained early childhood education teachers.