How our brains develop and how that affects us at different ages

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Our brains truly are amazing! They start developing soon after conception (about 17 days to be precise according to Dr Michael Nagel, USC) and grow rapidly for the first two years. The brain is such an incredible piece of anatomy and yet we are taught so little about it as we grow up.

It is difficult to map out the development of human brains because each child develops at a different pace depending on many variables including environment, social environment, level of nurturing, exposure to stimuli and gender to name just a few. So bear in mind the following are provided as concepts rather than absolutes.

The diagram below shows some interesting facts:

  • Firstly, the brain starts developing soon after conception. The part of the brain that develops first is the brain stem. The brain stem is responsible for regulating most of the body’s automatic functions that are essential for life such as breathing.
  • The growth curve is the steepest in the first two years of life. During this period the mid-brain is developing which is responsible for vision, hearing, motor control, sleep/wake, arousal (alertness), and temperature regulation.
  • From the ages of 2-7 the Limbic Brain starts to develop which is responsible for emotions, behaviours and feelings. This explains why 2-year-olds are unable to manage their emotions!
  • From age seven onwards the Frontal Cortex starts to develop starting with thinking and empathy. The Frontal Cortex takes many years to fully develop, in some cases up to the late 20’s, when rational thought and decision-making are formed capabilities. Now that explains a few things, right?!

But it’s not just the physical part of the brain that develops. Throw in a few hormonal changes around puberty (8-19 years) to keep parents on their toes.

Between the ages of 15-19 years the Adolescent Brain does a few heavy renovations, culling out synapses that aren’t being used. This is technically called ‘pruning’. During this period the brain is 90% Limbic – responsible for feelings and emotions, which is why during the late teen years there can be some very interesting moods to navigate.

How does our brain change as we age?

Glad you asked! This graph explains the different stages our brain goes through not just from a physiological point of view, but also in terms of aptitudes and emotional development. You may need to go to the link to enlarge the image.


This graph goes some way to explaining the developmental changes, although it doesn’t take into account the differences between genders.

I have observed some significant differences between my girl and boy and wondered why they do some of the things they do. One sees a creepy crawlie and goes to help it find shelter on a beautiful flower and makes a little cosy bed for it (showing empathy), while the other one wants to find out if it can swim in a muddy puddle (demonstrating curiosity). Or how one won’t let go of a device as though their life depends on finishing the last little brick in Minecraft Education (demonstrating the dopamine addiction kicking in) vs the other one saying “Hey Mum! Wanna see the office I’ve built for you?” (a smart way to spend a little more time on the device, but Mum knows what you’re up to).

There is so much to learn (literally). While I’ve been studying neuroscience and developmental psychology (Yes, I’m a geek when it comes to these things), I’ve learned so much about why my Little Learners react to things or see things differently from what I as an adult would expect. As a parent, it’s hard to remember what it was like when I was my children’s age, and I had no idea what incredible changes were occurring inside my brain but I sure wish I knew some of this earlier in my parenting adventure. It would have explained a few things for sure!

Interested in learning more Brain Facts? Check out the Brain Facts Category of blog posts

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

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