Nature or Nurture? Not the Right Question, Brain Scientists Say

One of the oldest debates among thinkers is what is more important to human development, nature or nurture. By nature, these thinkers mean the physical development of the person, especially the genes that contain information necessary for biological development. By nurture is meant all those external factors, both in the womb and later outside the womb, that affect the development of the baby. Discoveries in the field of brain research indicate this kind of either/or question is the wrong question to ask. In fact, both nature and nurture are important and they interact in ways scientists are still trying to grasp.

It is the nurturing aspects of brain development that most interest parents, teachers and others. A pregnant woman wants to know what she can do (and avoid) to help her child develop normally. The mother of a small child wants to know what learning experiences she can provide so her child develops and is ready for school. Overzealous parents, however, can launch into ill-advised ventures, such as trying to teach reading before the child is ready.

A lot of the nurturing of infants and young children just comes naturally to parents. Parents (and many others) want to hold the new baby and talk to her, even if it is baby talk. According to Temple University psychology professor Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, an interactive process is best: “You have to let your child have a turn, and it has to go back and forth.” See this brief article and video for more. A book published several years ago, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, offers other ideas; listen to this NPR interview with the authors.

Future updates will provide more discussion of the need for nurturing (both before and after birth) and what happens when this nurturing does not occur.

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