NEWS RELEASE, 05/11/98
Enrichment is key to children's intelligence and
creativity, says new book coauthored by UC Berkeley brain researcher Marian
By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
Berkeley - Marian Cleeves Diamond knows brains. As a mother she raised four of her own - two female and two male - and was one of only a few scientists to study some of Einstein's brain cells.
For more than three decades, much of that time as a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, she has delved into the workings of rat brains and has been known to lug a human brain around campus in a flowered hatbox - for instructional purposes, of course.
So when she puts together a book with science writer Janet Hopson on how to nurture and enrich children's minds, parents should take heed.
Their new book, "Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth through Adolescence" (E P Dutton, 1998), is full of advice distilled from years of research and culled from interviews with scores of brain and behavioral scientists.
It is a handy guide for parents - as well as teachers - on how to get the most out of children's brains, from fetus to teen.
"We have to catch the brain while it's growing rapidly after birth," said Diamond, who served as director of UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science from 1990 to 1996. "If you provide early enrichment while the brain is growing rapidly you can get larger changes than after it has reached its peak of growth."
The "magic trees" referred to in the title are the branches of the tree-like nerve cells in the brain, each twig almost touching another nerve cell branch in a vast, interconnected network. These branches
grow enormously during childhood, making a child's brain "a highly dynamic organ that feeds on stimulation and experience and responds with the flourishing of branching, intertwined neural forests," the authors write.
In their book, Diamond and Hopson take off from this image to explain how the brain develops and how this correlates with the behavioral changes in the child. Along the way they survey the many studies of human and animal brain development and draw inferences about the best way to enrich a child's brain.
"I haven't seen any other book on the developmental sequence of a child's brain and early adolescence anywhere," said Hopson, a Berkeley-based science writer with more than half a dozen books and textbooks to her credit. "We bit off a bigger chunk of science than anyone else has tried to do in a popular book, based on interviews with neuroscientists, child development experts, teachers, parents and physicians."
They answer questions every parent asks: At what age should I start stimulating my child's mind? Is there any danger of overstimulation? Does enrichment benefit all children? How can schools and teachers help?
"Though we're giving advice to parents, we want parents to make their own judgment, based on knowledge of their children as individuals," Diamond cautioned. "No two brains are alike, no two children are alike."
The book also is unique in including more than 100 pages of learning resources for the parent and educator, including suggested computer software. The recommendations for books, games, activities and software are grouped according to age and sex, since the brains of boys and girls can be significantly different in how they approach the world, Diamond said.
Diamond said previous books on the subject have either been too technical or wrong. What spurred her and Hopson to write the book, however, was the feeling that parents and educators were just not getting the message.
"I've given over 800 lectures in my career and still it's as if the idea that the brain can be enriched is new," she said. "The initial discovery that branches of nerve cells could develop with enrichment was made 34 years ago in my laboratory. You just have to keep repeating the message."
Knowledge of the effects of enrichment has advanced significantly since then, but the basic message was there in 1964 - a stimulating environment breeds better brains.
"I do believe it's essential to share research findings with the public," she said. "I was determined that these studies should not sit on the library shelf."
Having immersed herself in brain research - especially rat brain research - her whole life, it's not surprising that Diamond sprinkles her conversation with allusions to animal studies that prove her point.
What about parents who push their children, such as those who use flash cards with their newborn?
"All parents are eager to enrich their children, but enriching and pushing are two different things," Diamond said. "If you give too many toys to rats too quickly, you don't get as big a change in brain development as when you spread them out over time. The brain's cortex develops fewer dendritic changes with overstimulation."
Are daycare centers and preschools a good substitute for a full-time mother?
"Undoubtedly such centers can play a positive role as a substitute for a part time mother, but I think the nervous system needs the touching and response of the caring mother to develop fully, and I am concerned about how much touching and talking children are really getting in play school all day," she said. "Just as the visual cortex in the brain doesn't develop with the eyes closed, the part of the brain dealing with touch doesn't develop properly without stroking."
Hopson cautioned, though, that parents should not read the book with a sense of guilt. "When you read this book, think of all the things you did right, not what you did wrong," she said.
Though the book stops at the teen years, around the age of 18, that
doesn't mean that learning stops then. While the outer layers of the brain,
the cerebral cortex, begin marked pruning of the nerve cell branches around
10 years of age, the role of stimulating or deprived environments is important
in determining the destiny of the nerve cell branches at any age, Diamond
emphasized. As a model, she herself is learning the piano - at age 71.
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