CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Have you heard of synapses? I hadn't until recently.
Do I know much about synapses? No, but they are worth knowing about because of their importance in developing learning ability during babyhood and in protecting memory during advanced adulthood (say, 65 and after).
There are trillions of them in our brains. "You are your synapses. They are who you are," writes Joseph LeDoux in his book "Synaptic Self".
Synapses are connections between neurons through which "information" flows, or is communicated, from one neuron to another. In both babyhood and late adulthood we are talking about intellectual capacity or cognitive skills -- the ability to process information, reason, remember and relate.
Cognitive skills are what separate good learners from poor learners. Without developed cognitive skills, children fall behind in their schooling because they aren't able to integrate new information.
How does the development of learning ability, cognitive skills or intellectual curiosity relate to the synapses, the neuron connectors?
The nurturing of the synapses by increasing the flow of information through them in the brains of babies from birth to age 3 is believed to enhance babies' ability to learn at the age of 4 and beyond.
How then can babies be caused to do what they need to do to improve the vitality of their brain's synapses? Answer: In large measure, babies can't, but their parents can.
In a breakthrough study released in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley asked why some children do better academically than others. They determined that a child's intellectual success later in life related directly to the amount of talk, and even the quality of talk, the child hears from birth to age 3.
Talk and more of it from parents to their infant tends to exercise and refine the synaptic pathways in the child's brain causing subsequent patterns of thought to be easier, faster and more automatic. Thus, the major cognitive task for infants is to develop and use the synaptic pathways that will facilitate their thought processes. This means that children who have been lavished with extra talk from their parents have an almost incalculable cognitive advantage compared to those who have not been.
Babyhood (birth to 3) may be thought of as the learning-to-learn period in life.
Hart and Risley concluded: "With few exceptions, the MORE parents TALKED to their children, the faster the children's vocabularies grew and the higher the children's IQ test scores were at ages three and up."