What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

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Overview

As a research neuroscientist, Lise Eliot has made the study of the human brain her life's work. But it wasn't until she was pregnant with her first child that she became intrigued with the study of brain development. She wanted to know precisely how the baby's brain is formed, and when and how each sense, skill, and cognitive ability is developed. And most importantly, she was interested in finding out how her role as a nurturer can affect this complex process. How much of her baby's development is genetically ...

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What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

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Overview

As a research neuroscientist, Lise Eliot has made the study of the human brain her life's work. But it wasn't until she was pregnant with her first child that she became intrigued with the study of brain development. She wanted to know precisely how the baby's brain is formed, and when and how each sense, skill, and cognitive ability is developed. And most importantly, she was interested in finding out how her role as a nurturer can affect this complex process. How much of her baby's development is genetically ordained-and how much is determined by environment? Is there anything parents can do to make their babies' brains work better-to help them become smarter, happier people? Drawing upon the exploding research in this field as well as the stories of real children, What's Going On in There? is a lively and thought-provoking book that charts the brain's development from conception through the critical first five years. In examining the many factors that play crucial roles in that process, What's Going On in There? explores the evolution of the senses, motor skills, social and emotional behaviors, and mental functions such as attention, language, memory, reasoning, and intelligence. This remarkable book also discusses: how a baby's brain is "assembled" from scratchthe critical prenatal factors that shape brain development how the birthing process itself affects the brain which forms of stimulation are most effective at promoting cognitive development how boys' and girls' brains develop differently how nutrition, stress, and other physical and social factors can permanently affect a child's brain Brilliantly blending cutting-edge science with a mother's wisdom and insight, What's Going On in There? is an invaluable contribution to the nature versus nurture debate. Children's development is determined both by the genes they are born with and the richness of their early environment. This timely and important book shows parents the innumerable ways in which they can actually help their children grow better brains.

"...a research neuroscientist charts the brain's development from conception through the first five years...highlights environmental factors that can play a role in brain development."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With impressive depth and clarity, Eliot, a neuroscientist and mother of three, offers a comprehensive overview of current scientific knowledge about infant and early childhood brain development. Beginning with a richly detailed yet accessible tour of the growing embryo, she guides the reader through the sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive systems as they develop. She builds up a versatile toolbox of scientific concepts and vocabulary as she goes, outlining entire neuroscientific subfields with remarkable efficiency. Along the way, Eliot presents research results on almost every conceivable topic of interest to the curious parent, from the potential dangers of VHF exposure in utero to sex differences in olfaction after birth (females have a better sense of smell than males), to the fascinating possibility that birth is triggered by a hormonal cascade in the baby's brain. While Eliot does not scruple to offer parenting advice where she finds it appropriate (e.g., she advocates breast-feeding), she meticulously avoids comment on thornier social and ethical issues. Her neutral tone can be disturbing at times, as when she admits positive correlations between socio-economic status and IQ or details Nobel prize-winning research into binocularity that involved sewing kittens' eyes shut at birth, without reference to animal rights objections. Eliot's confidence in the open-minded interest of her readers makes this a good bet for scientifically oriented parents who want to grasp how a child's mind develops. All in all, this is popular science at its best. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Eliot, a neurobiologist, assistant professor at the Chicago Medical School, and mother of three, has written a highly technical yet immensely readable study of how the brain develops from conception to age five. This book is both theoretical and practical, combining scientific reportage with "how-to" advice for new parents. In the midst of a scholarly description of vision development, for example, Eliot pauses to give readers advice about how best to arrange a mobile over a baby's crib. With clear, mostly simple language, she guides readers through a fascinating array of new research--on infant balance, the development of language and memory, and the relationship between the birthing process and the brain. On the downside, although Eliot italicizes technical terms and provides short definitions for them within the body of the text, nonscientists will find the absence of a glossary frustrating. On the upside, the book is extensively footnoted. A real page turner; highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/99.]--Margaret Cardwell, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Clarkston Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Using the nature versus nurture debate as a backdrop, this book follows the development of a person's brain from conception to age five and explores the evolution of the senses, motor skills, social and emotional behaviors, and mental functions such as attention, language, memory, reasoning, and intelligence. Eliot's (neurobiology, Chicago Medical School) research examines the many elements that combine to influence the development of the human brain, and how factors such as prenatal nutrition, the birth process itself, external stimulation, and genetics all play vital roles in brain development. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
This guided tour of "the wrinkly universe inside each child's head" will fascinate most readers, but some may find themselves lost amid its complexity. In an era in which genes are given most of the credit for shaping our destinies, Eliot, a neuroscientist and mother of three, is especially interested in the other half of the development equation—"neural plasticity," or, in layperson's terms, how the brain is literally molded by experience. The book begins with an exhaustive survey of prenatal influences on the brain, including the experience of birth itself, and then takes us through the brain's maturation, beginning with senses like touch, taste, and smell, which evolve in utero. Then Eliot explores the more gradual development of vision, hearing, motor skills, language, and social/emotional intelligence. Throughout, Eliot emphasizes that the brain operates according to a ruthlessly Darwinian principle: "Use it or lose it." For most brain functions, Eliot asserts, there is a critical period in which "synapses that are rarely activated—whether because of languages never heard, music never made, sports never played, mountains never seen, love never felt—will wither and die." Sometimes Eliot's erudition overwhelms the reader; the book is longer than it needs to be, largely because the author bombards us with information on obscure syndromes and the like. Though Eliot occasionally writes a paragraph that reads like it came from a medical textbook, her prose is generally quite graceful, and her neuroscience-based advice to parents sometimes bucks current trends. She advises, for example, that children should not delay kindergarten, arguing that holding them back stuntsrather than aids their natural cognitive development. Eliot also explains, among other things, why young children crave sweets and fats, why preschoolers can't control themselves, how male and female brains differ, and how a simple "marshmallow test" can help predict later achievement. An engrossing, challenging work that more than answers the question its title raises. (For two other studies of earliest childhood development, see John Bruer, The Myth of the First Three Years, p. 1010, and Alison Gopnik, et al., The Scientist in the Crib, p. 1016.)
From the Publisher
"With impressive depth and clarity, Eliot . . . offers a comprehensive overview of current scientific knowledge about infant and early childhood brain development. . . . Popular science at its best." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781452636795
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/12/2012
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Library - Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lise Eliot, Ph.D., is an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. A Chicago native, she received an A.B. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and she did postdoctoral research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In addition to teaching and writing, Lise lectures widely on children's brains and mental development. The mother of two sons and a daughter, she is the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. Lise lives in Lake Bluff, Illinois. An award-winning storyteller and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Cris Dukehart has narrated books in a plethora of genres, from romance, science fiction, and young adult to children's literature and autobiography. Her voice, with an endearing mix of sweetness and pluck, can be heard around the world and across the Web in commercials, e-learning projects, and corporate narrations.

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Read an Excerpt

Nature or Nurture? It's All in the Brain

Wouldn't you know it? Just as I get this beautiful, healthy neuron filled with dye and ready to image, Julia wakes up and starts crying. The experiment takes a long time to set up; I've been at it most of the day and need just ten more uninterrupted minutes. She has been so cooperative—sleeping like a baby (a nine-week-old, to be exact) in her cozy, blanket-lined computer box, safe and secure near my desk in the darkened laboratory. Finally, all the conditions are right: the microscopic neuron, vividly fluorescing down to its tiniest branches, an electrode carefully implanted to measure its electrical activity. I'm about to stimulate the cell's input pathway, to test whether it will "learn" from simulated sensory experience—when of course, Julia wakes up and wants to be fed.

What the heck. I pick her up, hike up my shirt, and start nursing, all the while twiddling dials with my free left hand. "Take off the holding current," I tell myself. "Set the extracellular voltage, configure the data acquisition, and then go!" The pulse goes out, the neuron fires a lovely train of electrical potentials, and the cell fills with calcium, color-coded, on the computer screen, with red for the most intense spots, yellow in between, and blue for the "cold" spots—distant branches that don't seem to have many pores for calcium to flow in. It's a great cell, an almost ideal experiment, until Julia suddenly pulls off my breast (curious, no doubt, about the flash of light on the computer screen) and, kicking her right foot into the delicate micromanipulator, knocks my perfect electrode right out of the perfect cell.

"No!"I wail, staring in disbelief at the computer screen. I watch as the neuron blows up into a big balloon, its membranes ripped open by the moving electrode. As it ruptures, the image on the computer screen flashes to red, then fades to orange, yellow, green, and blue as the dye dissipates. The cell is dead, a quick demise that is painful only for me.

Nobody ever said it would be easy being a mother and neuroscientist. But the juxtaposition does have its rewards at times. Here I am, trying to figure out how the neurons in a young rat's brain change with experience, and I have my own little experiment brewing right under my nose. Annoyed as I am by Julia's gymnastics, who can blame her baby brain, just trying to get some exercise for its budding motor pathways? Everything I'm trying to study in young rats is going on in her small head, a billion times over, every second of every day.

I spent ten years studying neural plasticity—the ways our brains change with experience—before Julia came along. I always knew I wanted to have children, but I had no idea how much my own research related to parenting until I actually became a mother myself. Like most new parents, I found myself suddenly fascinated by the nature/nurture issue, the degree to which Julia's future talents and weaknesses would be a product of our genes or her experience. The question is as old as humanity itself, but it is more than a mere academic debate. Whether one sides with "nature" or "nurture" makes a tremendous difference in the way we, both as parents and a society, raise our children.

Earlier in this century, the pendulum had swung fully to the "environmental" side. In a famous series of studies in the 1940s, psychiatrist Rene Spitz compared two groups of disadvantaged babies: one group was raised in what was then considered a perfectly adequate foundling home, and another group was comprised of infants whose mothers were in prison and who were being reared in a nearby nursery. Although both institutions were superficially similar—both were clean and provided the babies with adequate food, clothing, and medical care—they differed enormously in the amount of nurturing and stimulation each provided.

Babies in the prison nursery were fed, nursed, and cared for by their own mothers, who lavished enormous attention and affection on them. These children developed normally, in spite of the institutional setting and the fact that the number of hours of contact with their mothers was limited. Babies in the foundling home, by contrast, had very little stimulation; there was only one nurse for every eight infants, and except for brief feedings and diaper changes, each baby was kept isolated in his or her crib, its sides draped with sheets to prevent the spread of infection. With nothing to look at or play with and, worst of all, a bare minimum of human contact and affection, these babies suffered devastatingly. An enormous number didn't even survive to two years of age. Those who did were physically stunted, highly prone to infection, and severely retarded, both cognitively and emotionally. By three years of age, most couldn't even walk or talk, and in marked contrast to the exuberant nursery-reared children, they were strikingly withdrawn and apathetic.

Spitz's work went a long way toward changing adoption policies—eliminating the waiting periods that were at one time thought necessary to allow babies' "natural" personalities and intellectual talents to unfold. Early adoption is now universally recognized as the best option for orphans and unwanted babies, although the tragic fact is that babies in many parts of the world continue to wither in orphanages even worse than Spitz described.

Spitz showed that early nurturing and stimulation are essential to child development, and he was not alone in this view. At the time, the field of psychology was dominated by the theory of "behaviorism," which proposed that all our actions, from the simplest smile to the most sophisticated chess move, are learned through reward and punishment, trial-and-error interactions with other people and objects in the world. Babies, according to this view, are born as "blank slates," without predispositions, and infinitely malleable through parental feedback and tutoring. John Watson, the founder of modern behaviorism, even went so far as to claim:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any kind of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

No doubt Watson overstated his case, but such emphasis on early environment eventually led to the establishment of important social programs like the welfare safety net and Head Start. If children are so greatly malleable, then the best way to ensure a great society is by improving the environment of its youngest members.

These days, things have swung to the opposite extreme. We are now fully entrenched in the Era of the Gene. Every day, molecular biologists get a little closer to pinpointing which stretch of chromosome is responsible for some dreaded disease or complex behavior—alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer, dyslexia, sexual orientation. The government-sponsored Human Genome Project has made us heady with the potential of "decoding" the blueprint for every individual, figuring out where each of our strengths and weaknesses lies, what troubles may lie ahead, and eventually, how to cure our genetic ills. These fast-paced discoveries are exciting, to be sure, but the renewed emphasis on genes also has its discomfiting side—the tendency, fostered by books such as The Bell Curve and The Nurture Assumption, to say that parents and society make little difference. A child's fate, according to this view, is largely determined by heredity, leaving little we can do to improve matters.

As a neuroscientist, it's hard to fully accept this position. Of course, genes are important, but anyone who has ever studied nerve cells can tell you how remarkably plastic they are. The brain itself is literally molded by experience: every sight, sound, and thought leaves an imprint on specific neural circuits, modifying the way future sights, sounds, and thoughts will be registered. Brain hardware is not fixed, but living, dynamic tissue that is constantly updating itself to meet the sensory, motor, emotional, and intellectual demands at hand.

My own fascination with neural plasticity was only magnified with newborn Julia in my arms. If ever there was a time for experience to mold her brain, this was it. Although we know from studies of adult learning that the brain remains malleable throughout life, it is massively more so in infancy. Brain surgeons can even remove an entire hemisphere from the cerebral cortex of a young child (which in rare instances is the only treatment for profound epilepsy), and he or she will suffer surprisingly little loss of physical function or intellectual capacity.

I found myself wondering about every interaction: What is this caress, this diaper change, this lullaby doing to Julia's brain? Which circuits are already turned on, and which are still wiring up? What happened, at six weeks, to make her suddenly start smiling, or at eighteen weeks, so that she could finally reach out and grasp her rattle? Can Julia see those computer designs I taped up in her box? Hear the neuron firing away through the audio monitor? Know that I am her mother? Are we, her enraptured parents, in any way responsible for these wiring events, or would they have happened without any particular nurturing on our part, unfolding, like a budding flower, along a programmed trajectory that requires nothing but the most basic food, water, and air?

In other words, I needed to know: What is going on inside that little head, and what difference can I, as a parent, make in her putting it all together?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 13, 2011

    So+informative

    This+book+contains+a+wealth+of+research-based+insight+into+the+developing+brain

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2010

    A wonderful read, and reference

    I bought this book in 2003, when I was pregnant with my son, at the recommendation of a neuroscientist friend. It was fascinating to read about how babies brains develop, and it really helped demystify some of the stages my son went through as an infant. It works on a lot of levels: personally, I liked that the information was complete and thorough, but it is possible to skim through some of the denser sections if desired. It's definitely one of the few books that I found myself going back to over the years, as my son grew up, and one of the VERY few baby-related books that I will never discard. And, it is now my standard baby shower gift for new parents!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2009

    I'm glad I read the synopsis before buying

    Even though I am interested the my child's developmenting brain, thanks to the Publisher's Weekly I would not buy this book knowing it makes reference to animal experimentation. Something that makes me physically ill.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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