The child inside

Keith October 31st, 2008

“We go on being children, regardless of age, because in life we are always encountering new things that challenge us to understand them, instances where a practiced imagination is actually more useful that all laboriously acquired knowledge.” – Milan Kundera.

This is quoted from an essay by Shaun TanPICTURE BOOKS: Who Are They For?

C S Lewis has also written (in the Narnia chronicles) on the importance of retaining a child’s view of the world.  (Not to mention the biblical injunctions.)

I have recently completed the StrengthsFinder assessment.  The accompanying book by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton provides a brief description of how the human brain develops.  We are born with “a hundred billion neurons”, and we keep “about that many up until late middle age.” More importantly, these neurons form connections – synapses – with each other.

By the age of three, “each of your hundred billion neurons has formed fifteen thousand synaptic connections with other neurons.”  But from this age, these connection start to fall into disrepair.  “… between the ages of three and fifteen you lose billions and billions of these carefully forged synaptic connections.  By the time you wake up on your sixteenth birthday, half your network is gone.”

This may not be final – there has been some recent work on brain plasticity (by Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself) – but it appears that in general the connections within our brain do not change appreciably after that age.

However, Buckingham and Clifton state that our effectiveness depends on how well we capitalise on our strongest connections; the point of the book and assessment.

We have a huge number of connections while we are younger in order to soak up all the new sights, sounds and experiences.  But while we have all these connections, we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of signals.  In order to start making sense of everything, we need to develop a way of focusing on some signals, and blocking out the background “noise” of other signals.  We do this by progressively destroying the less “important” connections.

As our genetic inheritance and early childhood environment help us to sort out our neural pathways, our natural talents – our strengths – begin to emerge.

One of my strengths is apparently “Ideation”:

You are fascinated by ideas… concepts… Yours is the kind of mind that is always looking for connections, and so you are intrigued when seemingly disparate phenomena can be linked by an obscure connection… a new perspective on familiar challenges.

You revel in taking the world we all know and turning it around so we can view it from a strange but strangely enlightening angle. You love all these ideas because they are profound, because they are novel, because they are clarifying, because they are contrary, because they are bizarre…

This all makes me wonder.  Is it just possible, then, that some of the more creative, imaginative and intelligent people among us are those that have managed to retain some of the “child’s brain”? Conversely, have the most supposedly “grown up” of us in fact shut down too many connections, and lost the ability to enjoy the contrary and the bizarre; to see and feel the wonder of the world and the people around us? 

Perhaps we need to continue to expose ourselves to the “new things that challenge us”.  Give our imagination a little more practice.  Explore the things that we haven’t made sense of yet, flex a few synapses, and enjoy some of the noise that our “adult” brain would like to block out.

3 Responses to “The child inside”

  1. Nick Siewerton 01 Nov 2008 at 1:13 am

    Hi Keith,

    I just read your post on strengths and brain development. What an interesting take on the topic and great questions about how we recapture the intense inclinations of our childhood.

    I absolutely have to recommend to you a book by educator Jenifer Fox called Your Child’s Strengths (Viking 2008). In it she argues that we really need to start engaging kids in strengths discovery early on in their education. Why should they go through the majority of their schooling without articulating, building on or reflecting on their strengths? Certainly, their school experiences could be more valuable with that knowledge. She lays out both why and how we can get kids strengths oriented. Buckingham wrote the forward. Great book.

    Since you are interested in Buckingham’s ideas and you are raising developmental questions about strengths and you are a parent, I thought it was something you should know about. More info on Jenifer is available at her website http://www.strengthsmovement.com.

    Nick Siewert
    Slatyfork, WV

  2. Stuart Frenchon 03 Nov 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Great post Keith, thanks for making me think about this a little.

    I agree with you Nick about strengths creation early on. We decided when our kids were young to restrict the number of activities they did and help them focus on them. Our daughter has tried Gymnastic because she loves it, but maybe not a natural ffit for her, although she is now finding art to be her thing.
    My son’s is Inline Hockey. At twelve he has been playing for seven years and was skating a year before that. For us we see a nice progression. Learning styles change, different parts of the game fascinate him over time, but it’s not until you see him skating with other kids his age that you realise how adept he and his other hockey friends are.

    For myself I try to maintain new challenges every year or two. Right now it’s watercolour painting. Two years ago learning the didgeridoo. Year before that Landscape Photography and before that learning to juggle.

    But I find the real trick is not retaining the brain of a child, but the faith of one.

  3. Keithon 03 Nov 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Nick, Stuart –

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and the reference – will check that out. I will also need to read the Doidge book, I can see!

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