If you’ve heard the term “brain plasticity” before, it’s most likely been in the context of what occurs after an injury or loss of ability, such as when a person becomes blind. In such cases, the brain can actually rewire itself to partially compensate for the loss.
In the case of blindness, the portion of the brain that’s normally associated with sight if often repurposed to enhance other senses such as touch and hearing.
However, the brain doesn’t get rewired only during extreme events – it changes all the time in reaction to the activities the brain’s owner.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll keep to a simple definition of “brain plasticity” – in which I mean the ability/tendency for the brain to change over time in reaction to the environment and activities that a person participates in.
Brain plasticity causes the things we do more often to become easier and more natural and the things we do less often to become harder.
Brain Plasticity and Parenting
So what does all this have to do with parenting?
Brain plasticity is important for parents to understand because it means that the more of the particular type of activity our kids are engaged in (and are allowed or encouraged to engage in), the more their brains will adapt to those activities.
Conversely, the activities our kids engage in the least become harder and less pleasant to undertake.
This seems obvious when you consider things like schoolwork – of course, if someone studies more, they learn more and if they study less they won’t learn as much.
In sports, it’s also obvious – the more someone practices, the better they become. The less they practice, the worse they are.
More than Just Schoolwork and Sports
But we really need to think about this tendency in a broader context, because this phenomenon affects kids not only in schoolwork and sports but impacts how impulsive they are, how they handle their emotions and a wide variety of mental traits.
In many ways, the brain is much like many other parts of the body in that it gets optimized based on usage. The less of something we do or system we use, the greater the probability that the body will cut off resources to supply that system and more likely that system will atrophy.
The more a part of the body is used, the more resources will be dedicated to it and those things will become better or stronger (think about what happens with muscles after we work out and give them enough time to rest – the same general process occurs for many of the body’s systems.)
So basically, the activities our children regularly engage in literally make their brains adapt to those activities.
Those activities then, indirectly change kids’ experience in the world – what they find pleasurable or painful and what they find easy or hard.
Brains Can Be Optimized for Contentment or Frustration
This fact has profound implications since it means the activities our kids regularly engage in optimize their brains for activities that help them find contentment and success or optimize them for discontentment, pain, and frustration.
Let’s consider a few activities or patterns of behavior kids ould regularly engage in and the effects of those activities over many hours or even years.
Constant Stimulation is a Recipe for an ADHD-Like Brain
One thing that I think about all the time is the effect of mass distractions and entertainment in our society.
In kids in particular.
For the first time in the history of humanity, all members of society are given the opportunity to never be bored. To never have downtime. To always have a distraction handy at the slightest hint of discomfort.
It’s reached a level where we have to actually strategize and put effort into how to have downtime because of all the digital temptations around us.
The Boredom-to-Digital Entertainment Circuit
When our kids grab a digital device at the slightest hint of boredom or discomfort, the brain a specific type of wiring gets reinforced. Specifically, the neural pathway that’s involved in detecting the “boredom condition” responds with “pick up digital device, now!”
And that connection becomes stronger every time the child reaches for a digital device as a response to boredom.
Because of this reinforcement process, the child’s brain encourages the child to actively resist activities that are slow because such activities start feeling more and more unpleasant. The child’s brain actually changes to induce strong feelings of discomfort when downtime is encountered.
A craving gets established. An addiction to being entertained.
This is a problem for obvious reasons.
How can one have a deep thought if boredom is met by the reaching for an electronic gadget that provides a quick high?
A Part of the Brain that Requires Downtime
From a biological standpoint, there are multiple things going on. Firstly, without downtime, the brain’s default mode network (DFN), rarely if ever gets engaged. It’s the part of the brain that gets engaged when we’re daydreaming or our mind is wandering.
The DFN is believed to be essential in order for us to properly regulate emotions, more effectively socialize with others by understanding their emotional state, and numerous other mental activities involving self and other-awareness.
Sometimes humans just need to be quiet, to be alone with their thoughts so they can reflect on things that aren’t necessarily pleasant but need to be thought through or mentally confronted.
How Kids Wire Now Affects their Future Economic Viability
Additionally, just from a simple economic standpoint, if kids are growing up wiring their brains to never think deeply due to the constant digital highs they encounter, they’re decreasing their chances of being highly valuable to the economy of the future.
As time goes on, and work become more and more automated, deep thinkers will become more valuable, while shallow thinkers won’t be very valuable at all. This is explained in depth by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work which is summarized in this article which states:
We live in the shallows, constantly flitting from one diversion to the next, never stopping long enough to really get a handle on the bigger questions in our work, our relationships, or even our lives.
“Who cares,” you might say. “So what if I’m addicted to my phone? So is everyone else.”
True. But consider this: a lot of the menial administrative tasks you do in your job are likely to be automated in the near future.
Those who survive in the new economy will be the ones who can offer the kind of value that computers can’t: profound and counterintuitive insights, unique skillsets, and remarkable flexibility.
You can’t get any of those things by downloading an app.
Those who survive will have moved out of the shallows and embraced deep work.
A Habit of Consuming Makes for a Dependent Brain
The more our kids spend times in the act of consuming – tv shows, video games, etc, the more their minds become wired to simply accept the ideas of others rather than trusting in ideas of their own.
In other words, the more kids spend time on consuming activities, the more their minds become programmed by the ideas of others.
And it’s even worse than that.
The more their minds crave being programmed by others because having spent so much time mindlessly consuming the ideas of others, their brains have become wired for acceptance rather than initiative.
The consumptive mind is a highly dependent mind.
What to Do?
Where does this leave us, exactly?
We as parents need to pay attention to what types of activities our kids are engaged in, and gently (or not so gently) nudge them in the direction of activities that will wire their brains in a positive direction.
- Instead of watching a video of someone putting together Legos, a child could put together Legos themselves.
- Instead of playing a videogame, a child can learn to program and make their own using a system like Scratch.
- Instead of watching a video, a child could act out a play
- Instead of watching a cartoon, a child could create puppets and put on a puppet show
- Instead of playing a videogame, a child could go to the park or invite a friend over for more creative play.
- Instead of watching a cartoon, a child could draw his or her own comic
- Instead of watching a cartoon, a child could practice drawing or even learn to draw off a YouTube or Udemy course.
- Instead of a fast-paced action video game, a child could play another type of video game – a puzzle game, or another type that stresses creativity or problem-solving over action.
- Instead of playing a videogame, a child could play a board game or card game with the family.
- Instead of watching a video on YouTube, a child could create their own video and upload it to YouTube.
- Instead of consumptive activity X, a child could do creative activity Y
Being able to tell the difference between consumptive and creative activities takes on real importance when you realize that your child’s brain is literally being rewired by the activities your child engages during the years they spend under your roof.
More About Brain Plasticity
If you are interested in learning more about this subject then I highly recommend checking out the book The Brain that Changes Itself.