Kids for life? Pros and cons of lifelong neuroplasticity, as seen via our emotional development

— Windows of plasticity in brain development. Adapted from Hensch T.K. (2005). Critical period plasticity in local cortical circuits. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(11), 877-888

The Brain’s Emotional Development (Dana Foundation’s Cerebrum):

“Humans are likely the most emotionally regulated creatures on earth. Compared to other animal species, we can modulate and modify emotional reactions and experiences, even very intense ones, through a large and sophisticated emotion regulation repertoire that includes skills of distraction, reappraisal, language, prediction, social interaction, suppression, and more. At times, these skills require effort, and at other times, they seem reflexive and automatic.

But what are some of the variables in this sophisticated emotion regulation repertoire? The parent of any toddler or even adolescent can attest to the very slow development of emotion regulation processes. This slow development has been documented in empirical research, which also notes the large individual differences from one person’s ability or style of emotion regulation to another’s.

Evolutionarily speaking, this slow development of emotion regulation ability in childhood that culminates in an exquisite ability in adulthood points to the benefits of a slow-maturing emotion regulation system. Indeed, humans are not only a highly emotionally regulated species, but they are slowly developing in general, relative to other species, with a prolonged period of immaturity. Phylogenetically, slow development may confer benefits through an extended period of neural plasticity—a feature of a developing neural system that heightens its ability to learn from the environment. If so, then humans may owe their sophisticated emotion regulation skills to the “extension” of childhood that has evolved in us…We now know that the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to develop, and its connections with other cortical and subcortical targets are very slow to form. These processes are especially slow in the human, and evidence of continued development has been documented through adolescence and adulthood. This slow-paced and sustained development renders the prefrontal cortex and its connections vulnerable to environmental insults (e.g., early psychosocial adversity), but at the same time offers great potential for extensive learning from positive, enriching environments, and the optimization of neural processes that will facilitate regulated behavior. Its end-product is an incredibly rich emotional regulation repertoire in the mature adult.”

To learn more about emotion regulation and brain plasticity:

August 10, 2017 at 10:28AM


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