Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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A Bagel for a Brain

A pencil, a bagel, and six layers of tissue paper--these are the props trainers at the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development often use to show how important it is to intervene early in a child's brain development.

The pencil represents the brain stem. It extends up through the bagel, which represents the limbic system. Crumpled around the top of the bagel are the six layers of tissue paper, representing the neocortex--taken all together, the pencil, bagel, and tissue paper are the basic elements that compose one's brain.

For a newborn, the pencil, or brain stem, develops mostly in utero and begins to regulate in the earliest months of life. It's what determines basic body functions, such as heart rate and body temperature. The bagel, or limbic system, forms between birth and age 5 and is where personality, emotional regulation, and other behavioral characteristics are determined. The tissue paper, or neocortex, represents all of the things one learns in one's conscious life, such as reading, writing, math, and language skills. The neocortex continues to develop and learn into adulthood.

"A lot of us say we are going to make change in our lives, like quitting smoking, and we really mean it in our 'tissue paper,' but if you don't get to the core, down to the bagel to make the changes, it's really very hard to change behavior permanently" explains New Directions Executive Director Jill Stamm. "That's why the younger you get to an intervention stage with a child who has been neglected or abused, the greater the likelihood is that you are going to have permanent behavior change."

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