By Leslie Lindsay
There is something about the brain that I love. The seat of imagination, intelligence, emotion, bodily regulations, it’s a pretty darn amazing thing, the brain. But there is more it than just those things…it has to do with love.
According to a Washington University study, positive reinforcement may increase brain size. The article, from the St. Louis Post Dispatch indicates supportive mothers who practice positive reinforcement actually help their children’s brains grow. I remember hearing something along those lines when my babies where younger–loving them, cuddling them, holding them doesn’t just get them to be quiet and content, it actually makes them smarter. Thus, the message: you cant’t “spoil” your baby by holding them.
Brain scans show that school-aged children of nurturing mothers have a 10% larger hippocampus–the region of the brain that has to do with learning, emotion, memory, and stress response as compared with children whose mothers were deemed less responsive/supportive/nurturing.
How did they do it?
- Researchers gathered 92 children between the ages of 3 and 5. The watched how they interacted with their caregivers (mostly mothers) during a stressful task. One group of kids had symptoms of depression, while the others did not (the control group)
- What was the task? Mothers were given a questionnaire to complete–which required about 8 minutes of concentration while the childrenn were given a wrapped gift. The caveat–not to open the gift while mommy was filling out the questionnaire.
- The task was believed to stimulate circumstances at home. For example, mom is busy unloading the dishwasher (completing the questionnaire), while junior wants a little attention or help with homework (waits to open the gift).
- Researchers then reviewed tapes of the interaction. They found that mothers who consistently responded to their children in positive terms during the task were more nurturing. For example, if mom said, “Good work being patient,” or “remember to wait to open the gift until I am finished with this paperwork,” then moms were deemed more supportive.
- An MRI study was also conducted of the children’s brains of the “suppportive mothers.” It was found in those images that these kiddos have a larger hippocampus than those whose mother’s were not as supportive/offering positive reinforcement.
- Kids with depressive symptoms were found that the effects of nurturing/positive reinforcement were not as positive as the kids without depressive symptoms, suggesting that depression “takes over” and doesn’t allow for the nurturing the penetrate the disease process on brain development.
- Problems with this study: who knows if mom is having a “good day” or a “bad day,” or if the kids are? The situation doesn’t really recreate a home environment; it’s still a bit artificial. What about fathers? Grandparents? Can’t anyone be a nurturing caregiver, not just mothers? How about in the long run? A good, longitudinal study of these kids in the next 5-10 years may be warranted. And does nurturing behavior really equal positive reinforcement or could their be other factors contributing?
- The bottom line: do what you can to reinforce positive behavior, “catch ’em being good.”
(original artical from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “Kids Brains Benefit from Praise,” by Blythe Bernhard. Date cut off–as my retired father clipped the article for me…what a nurturing dad!–but it was likely publilshed in late January/early February 2012)