We are, right now, in the middle of a revolution in our thinking about the developing brain.

We have always known it was important to nurture the very young but now we know why.

A burgeoning number of new technologies, such as MRI, PET and rainbow emission scans, mean we are able to see inside the living brain.

Neuroscientists are now telling us that our experiences when we are very young, from conception to around three, particularly our experiences of relationship with the most important people in our lives, are more powerful than we ever believed possible.

Those experiences are literally combining with our genes to trigger connections in our brain that will determine the sort of adult we’ll become. We get the brain we need for the environment in which we grow up.

If children experience warm, emotionally attuned and nurturing care, there’s every chance they will grow into happy, capable contributing adults.

But if they experience chaos, violence and abuse then their brains can wire up over-geared for the fight or flight response. That may help those children to survive in that environment, but it’s not ideal if we want them to be part of the wider community.

Each time you hold a baby in your arms and rock him, gaze into his eyes and gently speak his name, thousands of neurons or brain cells are firing up, sending messages to other neurons, creating pathways in his brain that will allow him to develop and form a secure relationship.

A secure attachment relationship has multiple benefits down the track. Most importantly it forms the basis for a child to develop empathy for the feelings and needs of other people. It also allows a child to relax and concentrate so he can get on with the business of learning. A secure child is also more likely to feel remorse and to understand the consequences of his actions.

It should be a source of great concern to us that so many of our children are growing up with none of these benefits.

Children born into a world of chaos and violence tend to develop a heightened stress response. They can become constantly alert to threats in their environment, whether it be a raised hand, a loud voice or even just a certain look on someone’s face. These kids find it harder to relax, to concentrate in school, to learn. Their lives are all about survival and their brains are geared for that.

Many may also have been damaged in utero, by alcohol and other drugs or by stress experienced by their mothers.

This knowledge is not some trendy liberal approach to child rearing. It is soundly grounded in science. Right now there is a convergence of opinion across a broad range of disciplines. Neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, geneticists and epigeneticists are all saying the same thing. Early experiences and nurture are vital in the architecture of the brain.

– Judy Bailey

We are the first generation to have this knowledge at our fingertips. We ignore it at our peril. (For more information go to www.brainwave.org.nz)

Judy will be speaking on the impact of early childhood relationships on brain development and how this influences our wellbeing and the adults we becomes in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. She will discuss adolescent brain development and its impact on teen behaviour in Auckland.