Straight Talk – Never Stop Learning
By Stella Nicholls
Have you ever had one of those days that starts off typically enough but by the end of it your world has been turned upside down? On one such day (I’ve had a few), I approached my son’s Primary school to pick him up, as you do. He had just started school, having completed his preschool preparation year at Nursery School, with no problems.
The teacher approached me with a grim look on her face and told me that my six-year-old son had vomited in class and that he didn’t seem to have much in his tummy. This I knew to be true, as try as I might to feed him breakfast each morning, he just couldn’t bring himself to eat. He was too nervous, terrified, in fact. I ended up sending him to school with a milky ‘On the Go’ Weetabix drink, and a sandwich for later but clearly, he hadn’t managed to consume too much. I felt like the worst parent on earth. What had happened to the sunny little boy who had begged to stay on longer each day at Nursery School, as he was enjoying it so much?
That day was the beginning of many investigations into my son and his development.
When he was three, we had lost a loved one. His dad, (my husband) was taken from us very suddenly, a victim of a car accident. I was quite ignorant of the impact that it would have on him, at the time; a time where his brain was still going through major development. It was only when he started school and found himself in a challenging environment, that the implications of the trauma he’d experienced started manifesting themselves. He suffered from extreme separation anxiety in his first year. When he should have been learning the basics of reading, writing and maths, he hardly seemed to learn a thing. I was called into countless parent/teacher meetings and eventually, he was assessed by an educational psychologist. The shock of hearing that his development had been hampered by his dad’s death, was heartbreaking. When I was told by my doctor that a three-year-old experiencing trauma is akin to a foetus being exposed to Rubella (German measles) in the first trimester of pregnancy, I cried. I didn’t know; I thought he was too young to be affected. I was wrong.
The process of learning how best to help my son, led to me doing a little research on the brain. Now, I’m no expert, but there are plenty of studies which suggest that our brains have the ability to ‘rewire’ themselves, given the right circumstances. I was interested in finding out what makes us unique as human beings; what makes me creative, a person who loves drawing, writing, singing and reading but not very good at Maths? And what processes could be put in place to maximise our ‘brain power’?
Our genes play a large part and provide the basic plan or blueprint for our brains, but a child’s environment and experiences carry out the construction. During the early years, before the age of three, a child’s brain has up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood. A synapse is the point at which nerve impulses pass from one neuron to another, sending messages from the brain to other parts of the body. Having more synapses contributes to the connectivity and efficiency of the networks that support learning, memory and other cognitive abilities. The excess of synapses produced in the brain in the first three years makes the brain especially responsive to external input.
The brain’s ability to shape itself (plasticity) lets us adapt more quickly than we could if only genes determined our wiring. Surplus connections are removed if they aren’t used – making the brain more efficient, and those that are used more, become stronger.
Just as our environment and experiences play a part in brain development, loss and trauma can affect a child’s capacity to thrive in learning and social settings, too. Children who have experienced trauma, tend not to be able to concentrate, their memory is diminished, and it impacts their organisational and language abilities, which can lead to problems with their academic performance at school.
I’m glad to say that my son received the care that he needed to start learning efficiently at school. In fact, when we first arrived in Exeter and he joined Exeter College on the ‘Fast Track GCSE’ program, he excelled. Not only was he given the best care from his tutors, but they also created an environment where he flourished; understanding his learning needs. He achieved his GCSEs and was voted the ‘Student of the Year’ by his peers. He learnt leadership qualities and was encouraged to stand up and debate on various subjects during class. Rumour has it that during one debating class, he took on Katie Hopkins who had come in for the lesson and was deliberately pitching a controversial opinion. She patted him on the back afterwards, saying “Well done” as he had successfully stood his ground against her. Being new to the country, he had no idea who she was at the time. He also successfully interviewed Ben Bradshaw, Member of Parliament for Exeter, for a school project on Badger Culling and having worked part time at one of the busiest Costa Coffees in Exeter whilst attending college, was promoted to an assistant manager role at the tender age of 18. That’s my boy.
The good news (and why I have waxed lyrical about my son’s achievements) is that in recent years, science has proven that an older brain can be rewired. It was previously believed that only young brains could be changed and that once adulthood had been reached, the brain was pretty much set. Research has shown that people who learn to read as adults, for example, show remarkable changes in the deep structures of the brain. This and other cases of adult learning has led to a change in perspectives on plasticity in an adult brain.
Not only were there changes to the outer layer of the brain (the cortex – which plays an important role in consciousness) but even changes to the Thalamus (one of the main functions of which is to relay motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex) and the brain stem.
Our brains have the ability to learn and master many new skills, whatever our ages and may enhance our overall cognitive health. Perhaps there is hope for me to become a maths ‘guru’, yet!
Exercise also aids in keeping our brains in tip top shape, as it helps to release neurotransmitters and hormones that assist the growth of new brain cells and synapses. In an article: How Exercise Reprograms the Brain from website the-scientist.com, writer Ashley Yeager describes how since the 1980s, studies of humans have pointed to a link between exercise and gains in cognitive performance. The research also found that “active mice had more dopamine receptors in the basal ganglia, a group of neuronal structures important for movement, learning and emotion”. Basically, exercising is not just good for the figure, it would seem it’s good for the brain too!
While much of my research on the brain, ‘went over my head’ with many scientific explanations and words I didn’t understand, the gist of it has shown that our brains are amazing. We should never stop learning new things or reading – reading helps ‘rewrite’ the brain, highlighting flexibility and plasticity, even in adult brains.
My son is an adult now and has headed to Bournemouth to live in a missional community for a year, while he studies. The ‘mission’ is to help people who have been overwhelmed by life and aren’t coping, by providing them with basic needs like access to a washing machine or a hot meal, creating a community of hope. I couldn’t be prouder of him; it just shows how amazing the brain and the heart is at overcoming the toughest situations.
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