Drilling holes in myth about first three years

August 31, 1999|By David Boldt

REMEMBER all that stuff you've been learning about how the first three years of life are the most important period for brain development? Well, forget it. Or so says a new book, "The Myth of the First Three Years," by John Bruer, the president of a foundation that funds brain research.

The book is already sparking debates. Some neuroscientists welcome it, saying they had been uncomfortable with the way their findings had been stretched in the media and on Internet sites -- statements such as "the first three years last forever" and assertions that the brain is basically "cooked" at an early age.

Mr. Bruer disputes both ideas, claiming that all available evidence indicates that the brain remains "plastic" and capable of learning throughout life.

Mr. Bruer does not say that it isn't good for parents (and child care providers) to talk, sing and interact with babies. Nowhere does he suggest that safe, stimulating day care is not good for children. He does say that, contrary to what many would have you believe, you can't prove the benefits through neuroscience.

Some parents and policy makers, he suggests, may have gone overboard based on misleading interpretations of research.

So you don't have to start your child on violin or French lessons before age 3. Expensive programs aimed at boosting the intellectual prowess of toddlers should be carefully scrutinized because there's a real question as to whether the very small benefits justify the cost.

As Mr. Bruer shows, science can be quickly subverted when policy makers are in desperate need of support for a conclusion they have already reached. In this case, they had concluded that more attention should be paid to early childhood education, in large part because programs aimed at older children had proven less effective than hoped.

The myth

Mr. Bruer traces "the myth of the first three years" back several decades to the discovery that the number of nerve connections, or synapses, grows tremendously during the first three years of life, then levels off before being sharply reduced during puberty.

He shows how this finding began to seep slowly into the popular culture in the early 1990s, getting a tremendous boost from a 1996 Newsweek cover story, "Your Child's Brain." That story was carefully written, with appropriate caveats, but such caution would soon be thrown to the winds with the arrival in 1997 of a big foundation report (Starting Points from the Carnegie Corp.) and a White House conference.

Both the report and the conference alluded to neuroscience but didn't offer much in the way of specifics. The daylong White House conference, Mr. Bruer notes, heard a total of 16 minutes of presentations from scientists.

As for synapse formation, no one has shown that outside stimulation has anything to do with this genetically controlled process. Nor is there evidence that it's better to have a lot of synapses. Too many, it seems, can be as problematic as too few.

Mr. Bruer then vivisects other aspects of what he eventually calls simply "The Myth." The first three years may be a critical period for brain development, he says, but it is by no means the critical period.

Likewise, the effect of "enriched environments" on toddlers' brains also has been exaggerated. Along the way, he pretty much destroys the widely publicized notion that listening to Mozart will make little kids smarter.

Eager parents

Another reason the myth was so quickly accepted, Mr. Bruer adds, is that so many parents these days are eager for any advice that might give their kid an edge.

My wife and I can certainly relate to that. We had gone so far overboard in pushing the "Mozart Effect" that our 2-year-old daughter recently proposed adding the Austrian composer to the list of people she prays for at night.

So are we now going to take that pile of classical tapes in her room back to the living room? I don't think so. I mean, why take stupid chances?

David Boldt is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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