By Gunnel Minett

In order to understand how we develop our basic understanding of the world around us, our worldview, we need to understand how the brain works and how it has develop throughout our evolutionary history.

Brain Plasticity

Brain plasticity is a concept that describes how the brain develop over a lifetime. Since the brain is built to handle the interaction between our inner and outer world, it needs to be ‘built’ from the experiences we have in life. The main building phase is what we normally call childhood where the brain is being formed and equipped to handle the situations we face in life. This requires a lot of flexibility and plasticity of the brain to re-arrange itself to best handle each life situation. One such example is a person born blind or loses the sight. Their brain tends to re-route itself to use the functions connected with vision to be used for other functions such as touch or hearing. The good news about brain development (brain plasticity) it that it continues throughout life. The average period to form the adult brain/mind is around 20-25 years but we go on learning throughout life. The brain is like any other part of the body, it needs exercise. It isn’t the number of brain cells that determine our learning but rather our ability to form new neural pathways. So just as other physical exercise we need to keep doing activities that stimulate the brain throughout life.

Consciousness/Mind development 

The creation of neural pathways is part of developing consciousness andmind.

Without sufficient neural pathways a baby is unable to make distinction between conscious/unconscious material. Before the brain is sufficiently developed we are unable to make discriminations: the basic assumption is that everything is equally valid and rational. This means that information acquired before we have developed a sense of self (around 2 years) will become ‘the world out there’.

Brain development can be compared with the construction of a house. If the foundation isn’t solid it tries to ‘compensate for shortcomings’. This may continue throughout life and un/consciously influence our worldview.

Blank slate theory

In traditional philosophy there has been an assumption that we start with a ‘blank slate’ or ‘without rules’ for how we will develop into individual beings. Modern understanding would be closer to a comparison with a new computer. When a computer is delivered from the factory it comes with a basic operating programme. It is ready and capable to be loaded with specific programmes for specific functions. The same applies to the newborn baby. Via genes we get a basic ‘programming’ that enables us to learn to build the brain. As newborn we do not really have any impressions from the outside world to create neural pathways (although the foetus registers impressions even before birth). But we have the basic ability to start this process. The genes trigger, in sequence, the appropriate brain functions to start ‘building’ itself.  

 For instance eye contact with someone ‘on the outside’ after birth will trigger a new phase of brain development. If there is nobody there to connect with, this phase is not triggered immediately after birth. It may take days before the baby makes a new attempt to connect in order to trigger this process. So brain-content is not there to start with. From that perspective you can say the brain is a blank slate. But we are born with ‘pre-programming’ that will activate the different development phases in the child’s development. You can say that it makes the baby expect certain input from the environment, in a specific sequence of events. This is the support that most parents know instinctively to give their children (to help eating, walking, talking etc). It is when the expected input for some reason does not appear as the pre-programming indicates it should, that we develop what we call psychological problems. All children expect to get positive attention from its carers. If the carers are not giving sufficient attention and care, the child will get ‘confused’ and start to compensate for this by trying to ‘re-route’ pathways just as if it has brain damage.

The Origins of our Worldview

To fully understand the origins of our worldview, we also need to have access to our unconscious processes. A question often asked is if it is nature or nurture that forms our worldview. The best way to answer this is that it is both. To clarify this we need to see genes as a ‘potential’ – a bit like a recipe. Even if you get all the ingredients together and follow the recipe you may end up with very different results. You may have to blend the ingredients in the right order, have the right temperature and even so the ingredients themselves may be of different quality. Small difference that may have a big impact on the end result.

The theories that some scientists have been putting forward, that you can look for a specific gene for specific behaviour (such as shoplifting or alcoholism etc.) have been proven wrong. Although there are still some who believe this and even have concluded that we unconsciously search for partners with suitable genes and created apps to match people (like Tinder for gene matching). To their disappointment, though, they have found that status, culture, faith and physical appearance override our instinct to find matching genes for our offspring. 

One way of seeing genes is that it is nature’s way of hard-wiring biological features and behaviour that have proven to be useful over a large number of generations. After enough generations it becomes genes that we automatically pass on from generation to generation. The genes are mainly biological hard-wiring but we also have genes that determine behaviour (for instance fear of snakes). When it comes to stress levels and other attitudes to life, although the genes influence here too, we mainly get this from our nearest carers (mother in particular). We set our basic stress level very early in life. A few months after birth we have copied our carer’s stress level and set the same basic reaction level, possibly for the rest of our lives.

Since genes ‘only’ are potentials they need the right environment to develop in a positive direction (i.e. as nature has intended). Genes can be compared to an on/off switch. One environment can ’turn on’ the gene and another environment they may ’switch off’ the gene. This is one reason why even identical twins can develop in different directions. From the moment the cells split into two instead of one body their environment will be slightly different. Before birth the difference is probably minimal but as soon as they are born they will have independent lives even if their environment is much more similar than for (non-twin) siblings. 

Returning to the comparison with the computer, the basic operating system is basically the genes that we get from our parents. But (to complicate the situation slightly) science has also concluded that our genes are not fixed throughout life but can change during our lifetime (epigenetics). An example to illustrate this is the period of famine in Holland during WW2. It did not just have an impact on people who lived during that period but also on their children and grandchildren. Studies have shown that the following generations have had eating disorders above the normal average levels. This can mean being both very slim regardless of how much they eat or a tendency to be obese for instance (possibly by the on/off situation). 

There is also growing evidence that children growing up in ‘bad’ environments have similar epigenetic changes in their gene pool. And of course, another effect of the environment is the development of the brain. Studies in America, for instance, have shown that children growing up in violent environments develop larger hindbrains. This is the area that handles self-defence and other survival instincts. In addition, if you do not develop the basic parts of the brain, the areas handling higher thought, compassion, wisdom etc will struggle to develop at all (which tends to start during or after teenage years). 

It has also started to be evident that excessive play of  computer games will enhance the brain areas for hand/eye coordination (possibly at the cost of other functions). The brain is a very flexible part of the body and will adjust to best deal with the outer environment throughout life. 

Another disturbing feature of early influence from the environment is that it can have consequences that will last a life time. For instance we are ‘pre-programmed’ to bond with our carers. Parents who use computers as babysitters may find that their child has bonded with the computer instead of the parent. For such a child, the removal of their computer may trigger what Jaak Panksepp has labelled a PANIC/GRIEF reaction and cause as much pain as the loss of a family member. It is too early to say, but the intense use of mobile phones and social media, in particular by children who are still developing their brain, may influence the genes for future generations. So it is not just debts and climate changes that we should worry about handing over to future generations. We also need to be aware of our influence when it comes to creating the whole worldview for our children.

Keywords; brain development, emotions, worldview

© Gunnel Minett 2020

For more on this topic see also; The Origins of Mind and Consciousness in Infancy and The role of Emotions in Mind and Consciousness

Gunnel Minett is a psychologist and author of books such as Exhale, an Overview of Breathwork and How to Grow a Healthy Mind