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Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan

Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan

by Gabrielle F. Principe

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This book reviews the consequences of raising children in today’s highly unnatural environments and suggests ways in which parents can learn to naturalize childhood again, so that a child’s environment gels with how the brain was designed to grow. In a clearly presented, accessible narrative, the author marshals scientific evidence from a wide array of


This book reviews the consequences of raising children in today’s highly unnatural environments and suggests ways in which parents can learn to naturalize childhood again, so that a child’s environment gels with how the brain was designed to grow. In a clearly presented, accessible narrative, the author marshals scientific evidence from a wide array of fields to explain why there is a disconnect between the brain’s evolutionary history and the technology-centered present. Research from both human and animal studies indicates that brain development is fostered by consistent opportunities for face-to-face communication and freewheeling pretend play.

The startling implication is that today’s structured, controlled, and fabricated surroundings are exactly wrong for developing brains. Instead of emphasizing technology and organized activities, parents and teachers could better help children learn by encouraging exploration, experimentation, and exposure to the real world. Recess, now often dismissed as a waste of time, should be considered an essential part of children’s cognitive and social development; lessons should be individualized as much as possible; and the current focus on homework and letter grades should be de-emphasized and eventually eliminated altogether.

Fascinating and controversial, this well-researched discussion by an expert on child development will make parents and school systems rethink how we are raising our children.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ursinus College professor Principe (Children's Memory: Psychology and the Law) explores the downside of highly-scheduled childhoods in this cogent discussion on early brain development. The less parents plan for their children to do, the more their children will explore on their own and the more they will inevitably learn. Mothers and fathers ought to "forgo the infant bouncy seats and playpens and foreign language DVDs….take the batteries out of ‘smart' toys, limit the high technology, cut back on the organized sports, and leave plenty of time for freewheeling, make-believe, and messy play." Principe takes to task best-selling name-brand kids' programs and tools, such as Baby Einstein and LeapFrog, citing studies that debunk their overall benefits. Instead, she supports old-fashioned face time with siblings, parents, and other children. A developmental scientist and a mother herself, Principe speaks from professional as well as personal experience; her contentions are fair and levelheaded, her concern genuine. (Sept.)

Product Details

Prometheus Books
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5.88(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Your Brain On Childhood

By Gabrielle Principe

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Gabrielle Principe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-425-8

Chapter One

Old Brain, New World

So, three children walk into a bar.

"Hold on," you say. "How did three children, all at the same time, manage to turn off the Cartoon Network, power down their gaming consoles, and flick off their learning laptops; have no violin lesson, tutoring session, or Scout meeting scheduled; no soccer game, karate class, or ballet recital to attend; and no science fair project, cookie drive, or word study to do?"

Good point. The setup is all but impossible in today's world. Not because the price of a Shirley Temple has inflated beyond the means of the typical four-year-old on a fixed weekly allowance, or because the usual kindergartner favors the trendy hookah lounge over the traditional bar scene. Nor is it because the hologram has made it exceedingly difficult for the ordinary middle schooler to make a good fake ID, but because childhood has changed. Really changed.

When humans first appeared on the scene about two million years ago, families lived in small, nomadic bands and made their living hunting and gathering. Children spent their days roaming in packs and playing on their own in the out-of-doors. They improvised their own fun, regulated their own games, and made up their own rules. Children's education was informal, and new skills were learned out in the world. Such was childhood for more than 99 percent of human existence.

Today, childhood is different. Infants find themselves strapped into bouncy seats and plunked in front of television sets. Toddlers are put away in play yards to listen to Baby MozartTM and use learning laptops. Preschoolers are given talking dollhouses, robotic pet dogs, and battery-powered frogs that teach them their ABCs. Older children sit in front of computer screens with earbuds connected to their iPods®, texting their friends on their touch phones to see if they can come over and play video games. They spend their weekdays inside classrooms, seated in rows of desks, reciting times tables, drilling word banks, and memorizing state capitals. Their weekends are filled with activities that are organized, supervised, and timed by adults: sports leagues, private tutors, music lessons, math camp, dance instruction, karate classes, and Cub Scouts.

And if you think that things like high technology, formal schooling, organized sports, and manufactured toys are the major newcomers to childhood, you are being speciocentric. To come up with the list of real novelties, you'll need to stop thinking like a human and think like, say, an orangutan. Try it. Pretend you're a hairy, knuckle-dragging ape reclining in the forest canopy, lunching on a ficus fruit and dragonfly sandwich. Suddenly, new changes come to mind, like language, letters, numbers, preexisting tools, art, music, religion, market economies, morals, manners, governments, nuclear families, and stable communities.

Why should you care about how the lifestyle of the typical young orangutan differs from that of children today? Because the very parts that make up modern children's brains were originally inside the heads of nonhuman primates, like orangutans—or at least their (and your) primate ancestors. More importantly, it's because children's brains have a history not only as primates, but as mammals and reptiles and fish.

"That is absurd," you say. "The human brain is inarguably the most innovative organ this planet has ever seen. It enables us to do all sorts of impressive things that no other animal can do. It gives us the ability to think about the future before it happens, understand what others have on their minds, imagine life a different way, solve abstract problems, and learn new skills just by listening. It lets us dance the rumba, play the saxophone, invent the light bulb, launch a rocket to the moon, and dream about standing behind a lectern at a 9:00 a.m. class completely naked and utterly unprepared. No other species even comes close. It's not as if chimpanzees simply speak less eloquently than we do. They can't even utter a single word. But we can say things that can get others to make us a sandwich, drive us to the mall, give us their life savings, award us a Nobel Prize, or elect us president." "So you see," you say as you tap your hairless pointer finger on a coffee table that only a human could be crafty enough to make, "our brains must have been specially made just for us with uniquely sophisticated, state-of-the-art parts."

That is a beautiful idea. It really is. And it's a deeply entrenched belief. But it is simply wrong. At every level of organization, from molecules to cells to systems, the human brain is merely a collection of old parts that have been fitted together throughout millions of years of evolutionary history. Humans, today, are born with the very same brains that resided in the heads of our Pleistocene ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, before the last Ice Age and before humans gave up their nomadic lifestyle and figured out how to domesticate plants and animals. What's more, most parts of our brains are holdovers from a more ancient evolutionary past, originating in primates, mammals, reptiles, and fish that lived long before creatures like us even existed. And the basic processing unit of the human brain—the nerve cell, or neuron—first appeared roughly six hundred million years ago inside the squishy bodies of prehistoric jellyfish.

How can I be so flippant about the human brain—the very organ that seems to make us special? Because when you look the right way at the brains of an ape, a mouse, a frog, a fish, or any other creature with a nervous system, you see that our brains are merely made up of old parts that were developed in other animals at different points in our evolutionary history. You see that the parts of the brain that enable kindergartners to design a sandcastle first appeared in nonhuman primates; that reptiles are responsible for the brain system that preschoolers activate to navigate the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese®; that fishes premiered the cranial nerves that elementary schoolers use to coordinate their facial muscles to give their little brother a raspberry. And you see that prehistoric jellyfish developed the brain cells that middle schoolers use to roll their eyes when you tell them they can't wear their neon-yellow Chuck Taylors® and matching rhinestone-encased sunglasses for their school portrait. You see that everything seemingly unique about the human brain is merely vintage parts from brains that came before us.

What does this recognition of the deep evolutionary history of our brains mean for children today? It means that their brains were not designed with modern life in mind; rather, they evolved for life in a very different world. At different times in the brain's evolutionary history, it developed in deep seas, freshwater streams, tropical rain forests, and the grasslands of the savannahs, not in classrooms, living rooms, manufactured playgrounds, manicured ball fields, or minivans. These sorts of evolutionarily novel environments have changed the way that children behave and develop, but today's children still enter their respective worlds with a brain that never expected to find itself in any of them. It is this disconnect between children's evolutionary past and their human present that makes parts of the modern world challenging and even damaging to the development of their brains, bodies, and behaviors. But the better we understand the long history of the human brain, the better able we are to raise happy, healthy, and successful children. To see why, let's begin at our beginning.


"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," my grandpa Sal said when he found out that his nephew Joey was legally married in the state of Massachusetts to his longtime business partner, Bob. But if my grandpa Sal cared to characterize more precisely his primate lineage, he should have said, "I'll be a chimpanzee's uncle" or "a gorilla's brother-in-law" or even "an orangutan's nephew," because these great apes, and not monkeys, are our closest living ancestors. How close? Super close. Measured nucleotide by nucleotide, the human genome is nearly 99 percent identical to that of the chimpanzee. This makes humans and chimps genetically closer than gorillas and chimps and even closer than many interbreeding animals, like horses and donkeys. This difference is so close that evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond at the University of California, Los Angeles thinks that humans really should be considered the third chimpanzee (that is, along with common chimpanzees and bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees).

If you've ever seen one of those old posters depicting the evolution of humankind as a straight progression from a hairy, knuckle-walking ape to an encyclopedia salesman, you might have the impression that the very first human was some hotshot chimpanzee who got the bright idea to stand up, shave his back, craft a business suit and an alligator-skin briefcase, and swagger right out of the African jungle. You could think of human evolution as happening that way—a straight line from chimp to man—but you'd be wrong.

Despite our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, we humans did not evolve from them. Instead, both chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor six million or so years ago. The most noticeable feature that distinguished our human ancestors—early hominids, generally referred to as australopithecines—from early chimpanzees was their upright stance. Australopithecines' hips and legs already had been repositioned to make walking on the ground easier than moving about up in the trees, and their feet already had done away with the opposable big toe of other apes. Famed australopithecine "Lucy" stood about three feet tall and had a brain capacity of four hundred cubic centimeters—about the size of a modern chimpanzee's brain. Australopithecines made their living as nomads, gathering foods like grasses, seeds, and nuts, and about two and a half million years ago, they began to craft simple tools from stone.

The first true humans—that is, members of the Homo genus—appeared on the scene roughly two million years ago and went on to evolve into diverse species. Some Homo species looked quite similar to Lucy, and others, mainly Homo erectus, stood at least a foot taller and had brains more than double the size of those of the early australopithecines. Homo erectus's tool manufacturing was more complex and varied than that of the australopithecines: some tools were made to cut meat and others to extract marrow from animal bones. Homo erectus was also likely the first species to figure out how to control fire and fashion containers for food and water. Equipped with such handy skills, Homo erectus migrated out of Africa around one and a half million years ago and into Asia and Europe, where it remained in some areas until as recently as twenty-six thousand years ago (which would make the species contemporary with fully modern humans).

Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved roughly 250,000 years ago, most likely from the Homo erectus who stayed behind in Africa. Modern humans with large brains (about 1,300 cubic centimeters) appeared within the last 150,000 years or so, and about 100,000 years ago, they, too, began to migrate out of Africa and eventually displaced all other existing Homo populations (e.g., Neanderthals in Europe), either by killing or by out-competing them for available food supplies.

So it went until about forty thousand years ago, when, during the last ice age, humankind took a peculiar historical turn. Out of nowhere, we took up the fine arts. We created statues that glorified the female form, painted cave wall frescos of animal scenes and great hunts, fashioned jewelry with shells and animal teeth, and crafted musical instruments. We also carried out elaborate burials for the dead, worshiped supernatural forces, and built huts for shelter (even though we still lived as hunter-gatherers). Then, with the end of the last ice age ten thousand years ago, we settled down, built stationary communities, and domesticated plants and animals. Setting up shop in one place triggered lightning-speed growth in our technological prowess. Once it happened, we took only about seven thousand years to figure out how to build the Great Pyramids. Then only a thousand more to build the Roman Coliseum. A couple more millennia after that, we've made the space shuttle, the Magic Kingdom®, and the iPad. But the irony of our rise to the technological top is that not only are we the only species whose brains are smart enough to fashion such groovy creations, we are the only species whose brains are smart enough to meddle so much with how nature intended us to raise our children.

This look back on humankind's long evolutionary history reveals just how unnatural modern childhood is, in that most of what children do today involves experiences never encountered by our ancestors. Our history also shows just how new our contemporary lifestyle is for our species—we've been civilized for less than half of 1 percent of our existence. Fossil evidence indicates that the human brain has not changed that much over the past 250,000 years, and certainly little at all over the past 35,000 years. What this time frame means is that there simply has been far too little time for natural selection to adapt the human brain to the conditions and challenges of civilization, let alone of contemporary childhood. Children's brains were not designed for life in the modern world. They were not built to be strapped into vibrating bouncy seats, assigned to climate-controlled classrooms, or put onto padded plastic play structures. Yet this is where we've been putting them.


In roughly six million years, we've gone from your run-of-the-mill ape to a uniquely clever human. The exact cause of this development has been hotly debated by scientists for a long time. But the most likely explanation has to do with a change in the weather. Paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, the director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program and the curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, believes that our solution for dealing with the changing weather conditions is exactly what enabled us to cut the neurological rope from the rest of the animal kingdom and emerge as uniquely smart humans.

In prehominid times, our ancestors were just another group of small apes that made their living feeding on fruits and leaves in the treetops of the tropical rain forests of northern and eastern Africa. The weather was typical jungle: uncomfortably hot and wet. But comfortably predictable. Then, beginning about ten million years ago, the weather started to change. The climate turned increasingly arid, and our reliable arboreal food courts began to dry up. As the trees disappeared, we were forced down and out of our comfortable treetop lifestyle to wander about on the forest floor to find more trees to teeter up to dine. This meant that we had to travel longer and longer distances to find a meal. It also meant that the stamina to move far across a dry savanna in a two-dimensional plane was now a much more desirable trait than the dexterity to move up and down in a three-dimensional, tree-centered environment.


Excerpted from Your Brain On Childhood by Gabrielle Principe Copyright © 2011 by Gabrielle Principe. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gabrielle Principe, PhD (Spring City, PA), is associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Ursinus College. She is the author (with A. F. Greenhoot, and S. J. Ceci) of the forthcoming Children’s Memory: Psychology and the Law, in addition to numerous articles in scientific journals.

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