Experience and Brain Development (Part 4)

Is nurturing affect brain and child development?


The brain is developed over time, from the bottom up. The basic structure of the brain is built through a continuous process that begins before birth and persists into adulthood. This development of the brain is influenced by many factors, including a child’s relationships, experiences and environment.

There are some changes in the early childhood brain:

  • Increase rate of myelination
  • Synaptic pruning
  • Increase in mass of brain
  • Increase in circumference of the skull

Brain lobes and development:

  • Occipital—visual cortex develops early (e.g. face recognition)
  • Temporal—language learning; continues to develop across early childhood
  • Parietal—movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli (eye-hand coordination)
  • Frontal—reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem-solving (develops into young adulthood). Hippocampus—memories; immaturity related to infantile amnesia

Positive Experiences

In a positive environment (interaction between children and adults), for example, young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them, the brain’s neural connections and pathways have a better chance of becoming wired together.


The brain is a highly interrelated organ, and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion.


Brain development is “activity-dependent”. Every experience stimulates some neural circuits and leaves others alone. Repeated use of neural circuits will be strengthened, those that are not used are chopped off resulting in “pruning”.


The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important pre-requisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.

Negative Experiences

Negative experiences cause “toxic stress” and body release a toxic hormone called “cortisol” which damages brain structure, and can lead to life-long problems in learning, behaviour, physical and mental health; while positive experiences lead the body releases those happy hormones include endorphin, dopamine and serotonin

Negative experiences include the following types:


Physical Abuse:

      • Striking a child causing some level of physical harm
      • Can be unintentional arising from punishment that escalated
      • Can be intentional


      • Failure to provide for basic needs (social, emotional, educational, physical)
      • Includes abandonment, leaving the child alone and unsupervised


      • Degrading
      • Threatening
      • Isolating

Outcomes of Negative Experiences

Physical Changes:

  • Lowered reactivity to stressors (non-reactive salivary cortisol)
  • Hippocampus may be smaller

Psychological Impacts:

  • Move from trust to mistrust (ala Erikson)
  • Use of violence to deal with conflict
  • Lack of sympathetic response to others’ distress
  • Little evidence that an abused kids grow up to be abusive parents
  • Lower achievement in academics than abused children
  • Poor social development with withdrawal
  • Poor emotional control

In summary, while positive stress (moderate, short-lived physiological responses to uncomfortable experiences) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system and may cause changes of brain architecture.


Berk, L. & Roberts, W. (2009). Child development (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.