Saturday, May 3, 2014

A baby's brain

May 3, 1999, will be forever engraved in our memories. Today Magali and I become parents. As you read these lines, I am pacing back and forth at the hospital, waiting for Dr. Escobedo to deliver, by Cesarean section, our daughter Ana Isabel.
       Ultrasound imaging has made big strides. We learned the baby is a girl in February. We even have a vague idea of what she looks like: she has a rather largish nose like her mom and a pouting mouth like her dad. But ultrasound scanning can tell us nothing beyond her looks and physical health. The structure and potentialities of her brain must remain hidden for some time.
       A baby’s brain is not a clean slate. In the ages-long debate about whether the development of the mind is influenced primarily by nature (what the brain is equipped with at birth) or by nurture (education, experience) I resolutely side with both camps. But don’t give my words more merit than they deserve. I speak only as someone who has done a great deal of introspection and analysis of his own mental process. Here, for what they’re worth, are my observations. Please bear in mind that I may be dead wrong.
       It is my belief, then, that we are not born with a blank cassette in our heads. At the time of birth the brain must already have a fuzzy structure, a vague idea of what it wants to be. I picture the neural network of a newborn as a misty hillside with many paths, all half-hidden in the brush. Each path proposes --but does not impose-- a natural direction. There is a limited number of paths. You can’t just go anywhere you like, or not without toil. Going against the nature of your brain is like leaving the well trodden road and marching off into the woods --it can be done, but it takes considerably more effort. And some directions are strictly forbidden.
       I find some tasks are easier for me to perform than others. One or two of these I have always pulled off with neither difficulty nor special training. Those would be my natural talents. I confess to having only two --a flair for music and a way with words. That’s all. Other things --playing cards, cooking, making decisions-- are uphill climbing to me. Still others --playing dominoes, sports with rules, politics-- are utterly beyond my reach. I have discovered that if the brain can be viewed as a pigeon-holing and cross-referencing machine, mine pigeon-holes better than it cross-references. I have better memory than judgement.
       Like water flowing down a hill, your thoughts run more readily down existing pathways and gullies. Paths in the forest are made wider by frequent treading. Neural connections are reinforced by frequent use. But new trails may also be blazed with effort, hacking at the bushes. That’s where nurture comes in. Offer kids as many opportunities as possible for blazing new trails in their brains, especially while they are very young. Later in life the brush thickens. Existing pathways may remain (don’t depend on it, keep hacking!), but opening up new ones will be increasingly difficult.
       In the years to come we will try to foster in Ana the things we value, taking pains, however, not to make a clone out of her. Her mind is, well, hers. It has its natural pathways and, later, it will make its own decisions. Besides, we are old enough to realize that the world doesn’t need us --or you, for that matter-- and that kids are not born to perpetuate their parents, but their species.

       Welcome to the world, baby, and as your uncle Albert Einstein once said, may your generation one day put mine to shame.