These are all some of the capacities of the frontal lobe’s executive functions in the cognitive higher brain that plays a key role in:
MRI scans shows that only at 21 years of age is the frontal lobe area of the higher brain (neo-cortex) mostly matured to allow top-down brain pathways to be developed to override lower brain functions. However you as parents can positively impact the connections from the lower infant immature survival brain to the frontal lobes of a child’s brain as early on as the birth of your child.
I will present FOUR ways that you as parents can be proactive in helping your child make those very vital connections to their brain’s control center.
FIRST THROUGH MIRROR NEURONS:
MRI scans indicates that by age 4 the child’s first areas of the neocortex are developed and connected. These are the sensory and basic motor skill areas or the brain. So the child has a great capacity to learn by imitating what they see, hear, touch, smell, taste and even being able to imitate other’s movements and feelings. This capacity for imitation is due to the presence of mirror neurons in a child’s cortex. These certain neurons are activated when you move, and also when you see someone else moving. This means we unconsciously mimic the actions of others, and thus share, to some extent, their experience. Mirror neurons also allow us to know what another person is feeling, without having to think about it. These findings are among the most significant neuroscientific discoveries in recent years (The Human Brain, by Rita Carter). The mirror neurons are the brain feature that makes empathy possible. Thus, they represent the neurological mechanism that allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. Efficient mirror neuron activity leads to good overall development in all areas and leads to higher emotional intelligence and the ability to empathize with others.
Therefore what it is you would like for your child to do, say and think falls on a parent’s responsibility to model their own executive functioning capacities of knowing what to say, do and think in life’s situations . As children observe an action, word or thought that is calm, warm, firm, kind and playful their mirror neurons fire and form new neuro-pathways as if they were performing the action themselves. This neuro activity is what is helping develop their own connections to their frontal lobe. The more the action, word or thought is repeated in front of the child the sooner the child is likely to repeat it in the proper context as early as 3-4 years of age. With over-fives, there should be a good start in the connections to the frontal lobe for you to use techniques involving decision-making. As an example if you are in a store and your child wants a toy you say ”If you want something special, you’ve got to do something special”. You can ask your child whether she would rather give up the toy or help you with some task to earn the money to buy it. Once her higher brain is engaged in decision-making, it naturally calms all that lower brain intensity. Reflecting like this is good for developing new pathways in the higher brain.
Hence if a child does not have the chance to imitate positive models in their life their brain may not develop the vital pathways to their frontal lobe, and are left to be driven by their ancient rage/fear and defense/attack responses deep in the mammalian and reptilian parts of the brain. Brain scans show that many violent adults are still driven, just like infants, by these primitive systems. They may have had abusive parents lacking connections themselves to their executive functions. These brain scans show all too little activity in the parts of the higher brain that naturally regulate and modify raging feelings. Just like toddlers, such adults can be regularly overwhelmed by powerful feelings without the capacity to calm themselves effectively (The Science of Parenting, by Margot Sunderland). Hence these children with such parents may not develop the higher human capacities that are available to him in his frontal lobe.
SECOND THROUGH THEIR PLAY SYSTEM:
Other ways of developing your child’s frontal lobes to get them “on line” is through interactive play which enhances the emotion-regulating functions in the frontal lobes, helping children to manage their feelings better. The rough-and-tumble kind of play, between adult and child or between children, activates the PLAY system (a genetically encoded emotional system in the brain) which increases the activation of a very important “fertilizer” in the higher brain (frontal lobes) called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps to program the regions in the frontal lobes that are involved in emotional behavior. Research shows that there is increased gene expression of BDNF in the frontal lobes after play.
What happens if children don’t get enough rough-and –tumble?
Research shows that if mammalian infants don’t get enough socially interactive play, they will make up for lost time and play harder, often at all the wrong times. In other words, their play impulses comes out inappropriately. This is what happens with some children labeled as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and have symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and poor attention. Children over 7 years of age should have enough frontal lobe "on line" to control their motoric impulses to sit still in the classroom and be attentive to the teacher.
THIRD THROUGH THEIR SEEKING SYSTEM:
Yet another way of developing your child’s frontal lobes is to encourage your child to strongly activate her SEEKING system, by providing her with richly stimulating environments for imagination and explorative play. The seeking system is another one of the seven genetically ingrained systems in the brain. When this system is stimulated it can activate an appetite for life, an energy to explore the new, it stimulates curiosity or intense interest in something and the sustained motivation and directed sense of purpose that help us to achieve our goals. When the seeking system is working in a well-coordinated way with the frontal lobes, creating a union between the lower and upper brain, it is responsible for many activities, from a child’s desire to build a magnificent sand castle, to an adult’s turning a dream into a successful business.
There are many chemicals in the SEEKING system, but DOPAMINE is the one that turns things on. It cascades all over the frontal lobes, enabling a person to have not only a great idea, but also the directed purpose to see it through to completion. The seeking system is like a muscle- the more you use it, the more it will work for you, in the sense that the more curious, creative, and motivated you become. In contrast if a child is left for hours on end in front of screens, their brain’s seeking system can be underactivated. The resulting low levels of dopamine can lead to procrastination, uncreative thinking, and few, if any, new ideas.
So DOPAMINE is the big “light switch” but also the key neurotransmitter substance that links the frontal lobe to the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia’s main task is to regulate our level of activity which enables us to sit still, and automates our movements like eating, and riding a bicycle.
For more on Dopamine Functions: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Dopamine-Functions.aspx
FOURTH THROUGH ACTIVATION OF THE CEREBELLUM VIA RHYTHMIC MOVEMENTS:
The cerebellum is a bulge from the brainstem with strong connections to the frontal lobes which we have seen is responsible for attention, planning, judgement and control of impulses among other things. It also has strong connections to the speech areas (Broca and Wernicke) of the brain and the eye movement area in the frontal lobes affecting eye tracking. The cerebellum also has strong connections with the basal ganglia and the motor cortex and plays a fundamental role in coordinating all of our motor activities. It makes movement smooth, easy and coordinated and corrects the deviation between executed and planned movement. Dr Harold Blomberg in his Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT) work points out how when these areas of the brain get insufficient stimulation from the cerebellum their nerve nets do not develop properly, hence affecting the proper functioning of the frontal lobes, the Broca and Wernicke areas and basal ganglia. However cerebellum functioning can be improved with rhythmic training.
Dr Harold Blomberg, was inspired by Kerstin Linde in 1985, who had developed a method she called Rhythmic Movement Pedagogy. Linde’s inspiration for her method was derived from the rhythmic movements infants spontaneously make before they rise and walk. While Dr Blomberg observed Linde's work with severely motor-handicapped children, he noticed that the more motor-handicaps they had, the less they developed other functions such as speech, emotional and cognitive functions. However, the more rapidly their motor abilities progressed, the more rapidly these functions also developed. His conclusion is that the brain needs stimulation from motor activity in order to develop and mature and that such stimulation links up the different layers of the brain during the first years of life. If missed in the early years however actively made rhythmic exercises can be done with older children and adults to redo what was missed, and remedy any cerebellum dysfunction, to assist in making those critical connections to the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain.