Cognitive development, defined as the development of intelligence, conscious thought and the ability to solve problems, begins in infancy and continues throughout adult life. Genetically, infants are born with a defined cognitive framework, but it is the sights and sounds of experience that help them reach their particular genetic potential. Brain growth is ignited and occurs when the senses are stimulated. From birth until about 8 years of age, the young brain is particularly primed to learn and create connections. The learning environment, whether filled with love and warmth or stress and conflict, also influences cognitive development.
The infant brain is born with a myriad of tools at its disposal, but precious little information. He is able to cry and eat, sleep and remain alert. Though he is tiny, he is faced with a world of knowledge that must be gleaned through experience. This strength of flexibility, termed "plasticity" by neuroscientists, gives each child the gift of possibility. Plasticity can be a blessing, a curse or somewhere in between, depending on the child's circumstances. Given a life filled with enriching experiences that stimulate all of the senses, the child has the capacity to reach his full potential. A life without the necessary stimulation to prompt neuronal growth may inhibit cognitive and developmental growth.
Cognitive development depends on stimulation provided through the senses. When any of the five senses -- touch, sight, sound, taste or smell -- are activated, electrical activity occurs in the brain. Each sensory experience excites neural circuits, thereby creating a stronger connection. Learning occurs when neural circuits are strengthened through repetition. Over time, other neural circuits become inactive through lack of use. These inactive circuits often drop away in a process called "pruning." Pruning streamlines neural processing, allowing stronger circuits to run more efficiently. It is through pruning that children are able to hone walking, talking and other skills.
Perhaps the most important and often overlooked facet of cognitive development is the quality of human relationships. From infancy onward, a child learns to get what he needs through acts of communication. The rapidity and quality of human response refines communication. A loving touch, a quick response and positive verbal feedback excite rudimentary neural pathways. The act of describing your actions, explaining the details of the world and taking the time to show, taste, feel, smell and listen to that which surrounds you provides a wealth of information to your child. These early forms of communication create healthy social bonds and the scaffold necessary to support verbal acquisition and emotional control, both of which are key players in cognitive development.
Abuse and Neglect
A childhood deprived of sensory stimulation provides little for the brain to work with. Abuse and excessive stress cause similar deficits by placing such a demand on survival that there is little time or energy left to devote to intellectual development. In extreme situations, where deprivation is significant, brain size becomes physically shrunken. Long-term effects of abuse and neglect include decreased brain function, anxiety and panic disorders, and attention and memory dysfunction.