Precocity paradox: early instruction may hurt the long-term growth

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Accelerating development

We shape the future of this planet by shaping baby brains.

These days, we begin the educational effort even before the pregnancy. Active moms exercise while pregnant, and play Mozart to babies in the womb. Active dads begin an exercise and training regimen from the cradle. We make babies speak sentences at 6 months. Master phones and tablets before they can speak. Make them read at 2 years old. Play piano at 3. Speak languages at 5. Enroll at the university at 8, and hope for an early PhD in their teens as well. The only problem with that eager approach is that it may all be wrong.

Perfect forgetting machines

You will often hear from your pediatrician that a child's brain is a perfect learning machine, or that in the first 3 years of life we learn more than in the entire adulthood. Those well-intentioned statements are misleading and may lead to wrong strategies (see: Three myths of early brain development and early learning).

Considering our adult standards, we should rather see babies as perfect forgetting machines. Long term-memory capacity develops very slowly. To be precise, there is nothing inherently immature about baby memory except that the brain changes so fast. Baby forgetting occurs because baby brains are most accurately described as incredible growing machines. These are complex organs that embark on a long trajectory that leads to becoming incredible learning machines years later. Early in the process, in terms of declarative memories, toddlers are far better at forgetting. We hear the myth of child learning marvel perpetuated by every single loving mother with no exceptions: "My kid just keeps surprising me. She learns those things I never thought she knows or understands. Every day something new. This little brain is just so stunning, so marvellous. She is a smartie cutie".

Then there are adults who add to the mythology saying "I am too old to learn languages. When I look how fast those kids learn, I just lose all my steam. It will never happen for me".

The truth is that if you put a kid and an adult in a learning competition, it is the adult brain that wins most of the time. It is better at processing information, at short-term memory, at mnemonics, and, most of all, it is unbeatable in long-term memory. I investigate those processes for a living, so I have a lot of data to look at.

Why do kids keep winning the learning battle in the long run? They just overwhelm the adults with the passion and time they invest in learning. When learning her native language, the kid soaks in new information from dawn to dusk. It invests 10-14 hours of its waking day in this learning quest. The lazy adult, in the meantime, has a reluctant 20 min. peek at his foreign language textbook, listens to a short boring audiotape, and perhaps puts 4-5 new hard words into SuperMemo. Adult advantages do not count much because the kid's investment in learning is 10-50 times greater!

Some researchers claim that kids learn more in the first 3-5 years of life than they ever will. This depends on how we measure learning. In terms of neural revolutions within, this is true. In terms of declarative knowledge, this is wildly untrue. The speed of acquiring vocabulary may indeed be staggering between ages 3 and 6. It is powered by all-day-long learning. The slow deceleration at later ages does not come from the loss of learning capacity. It comes from the saturation of needs typical of the asymptotic learning curve. In the meantime, learning capacity keeps increasing. With the employment of tools like incremental learning that capacity may keep increasing even at my age (i.e. above fifty).

Infantile amnesia

Childhood amnesia is the absence of memories from early childhood. We generally do not remember things that happened to us before the age of 3 or so. If you claim recall from the age of 2, you are almost certainly wrong. It would take a different article to explain how we know that. Some traumatic or emotional memories may be recalled by coming back to mind very often, some memories might be re-told by parents, or remembered by watching things on home video, etc. This is why chances are you will disagree using yourself as an example. Scientists are not entirely sure why we suffer from infantile amnesia. Some believe wrongly that children "misplace" information in their memory, and can no longer retrieve it.

I can tell you exactly what happens to those memories. They are gone! Usually, they are gone in less than a month. This proves that kids are perfect forgetting machines. It is not that they "misplace" information. The information evaporates almost as fast as it comes in. I know that for sure because I have lots of data to prove it. The kid can learn and forget the same thing dozens or hundreds of times. It is literally one ear in, and out another.

I have managed to collect some SuperMemo data from children and the results are staggering. See: Childhood amnesia

Brain rewiring

How can then kids master a language? Or learn to walk? Or ride a bike? How can they bring up durable skills in a brain that keeps forgetting at a staggering speed?

First, we need to separate procedural learning, like learning to walk, and declarative learning, like remembering names. It is the declarative learning that stays weak for years. However, once the long-term memory sets in, there is no other animal that can compete with the human brain.

The main difference between the young brain and the adult brain is that the kid brain keeps growing and evolving. It keeps changing its structure. It keeps chiselling new pathways. In addition to procedural learning, the main goal of those dynamic processes is the optimization of controllability and pattern recognition. This is quite different from declarative learning at adulthood. A child's brain builds new synaptic connections and those keep acquiring new memories. This process proceeds at a stunning rate. The faster the little brain grows the bigger the revolution down at the lowest synaptic and molecular level. In this storm of change, individual memories stand little chance of surviving. Forgetting is not only a molecular decay process like in the adult brain. Learning interference from new incoming information is far larger due to the volume of learning the young brain is exposed to. Forgetting is also a structural process. New connections are made and lost. High rate of recycling makes forming stable memories almost impossible. Instead of just forming granular memories, the kid is forging pathways and highways in the white matter of the brain. The kids may forget fast what an orange is, however, it may effectively chisel out networks and pathways needed to recognize the color of orange. It will re-learn or at least re-consolidate the word "orange" over and over again. Perhaps 10-50 times in the first 4-6 years of its life (e.g. depending on how often she eats oranges). The same happens with speech. Networks needed to recognize sounds or produce sounds will settle down early. They are badly needed in speech. Here indeed the kid will quickly prove superior to an adult. If the kid fails to learn to produce and recognize certain sounds early, he or she will be affected for life. If she does not get exposure to Korean early in childhood, she may never sound like a Korean. Here comes the adult frustration: why can my kid learn Korean "fast" while I just can't get it? This frustration is justified.

Young brains grow fast. They learn by changing their structure. By forging new pathways. This is why we may harbor the illusion that some memories stay with the kid for ever. For the sake of argument, I will claim these are not "memories", these are skills, characteristics, procedures, etc. All the early investment in learning should shape the character, not specific memories. In neural network terms, the change affects structures and controllability, not individual synapses. Simple declarative memories do not last in a fast growing brain. They need to be re-memorized over and over again. This is why early academic instruction is a waste of time or harmful.

Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia
Conceptualization theory of childhood amnesia

Figure: An immature brain is a great generalizer. Due to its high plasticity, it can impress the adult world with "fast learning". Children are labelled as the "amazing learning machines". The large number of neurons in a baby cortex is also a supposed indicator of great learning potential and high intelligence. In reality, the rapid speed of network remolding due to the conceptualization process results in high volatility of memories. That volatility in reference to episodic memories is called childhood amnesia. Children have awful long-term memory, and early academic instruction is harmful. It may lead to toxic memory and impaired conceptualization. A child's brain is on its way towards the high efficiency of small-world networks that characterize the adult brain topologies. In the picture, a simple association needed to form an atomic memory (A-B) may traverse a larger number of nodes in the network. It is also at a higher risk of interference from neighboring links (in orange). Fore details see: Precocity paradox

Precocity and stress

The bombshell conclusion coming from the above picture is that precocity may not necessarily be a welcome quality. Look at a little kitten, it will walk and play ages ahead of your baby, but it will be your baby who will join NASA one day.

In short, we want to give the little brain maximum space and time for growth. All forms of natural training are welcome. All forms of "acceleration" must be taken with caution.

One of the prime chiselling factors affecting how the brain shapes up is stress. From the evolutionary point of view, this makes a lot of sense. All forms of traumatic experience in childhood should have an extra ability to leave a mark on the brain. If you toss out a toddler in cold dark woods to fend for itself, he or she will need to speed up that growth process to survive. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has a well documented effect on neurogenesis. Stress will result in structural changes in the brain. Baby rats deprived of maternal care show a remarkable increase in their ability to remember. Their long-term memories "improve" dramatically.

This might be why kindergartens are so good at accelerating development (e.g. speech). This is also why there might be an illusion of accelerating self-dependence. However, it might also be true that daycare actually limits long-term development options, esp. in brain development. There must be the optimum timing for the exposure to all individual stressors, and probably the best timing should always come after the main brain growth spurt window.

The major lesson and warning for all parents is that we do not want to use stress as an accelerator in learning. We do not want to whip our kids to faster development. Unfortunately, this is happening all the time as I write these words. This is a universal mistake made by nearly all parents. Parents get "rewarded" by seeing their kids shape up early, so they try more of the same bad medicine. Some parents will yell at their kids for being slow. Others will marvel at an "incredible acceleration" caused by daycare, which should rather be labelled "the effect of maternal separation". It is maternal separation that "improves" baby rat memories. Fast development may mean shorter growth span. This is trading minor short-term gains for major long-term harm!

Precocious genius

We are marvelling at Mozart composing his first pieces at the age of 2. Why can't our kids do that? Perhaps some early classes in piano or violin can help? Wait! Wikipedia says Mozart started composing at 3? That's one year more. Perhaps that tablet app will make a difference? Perhaps we can double that piano time and she can still do it? Then we hear on ABC News that Mozart rather started composing at 4? The actual age at which Mozart produced his first simple compositions might actually be 5. That's still mighty impressive. His incredible start might have come from a combination of precocity and the impact of his father. A perfect storm of smarts and ideal upbringing. For all hopeful parents, the message should be clear: great parenting makes a world of difference. However, no parent should impose a timeline on achievement. If it does not come at 5, it might come at 7, and it might come better. Acceleration cannot come with the use of a whip. Slow growing brains may grow further.

As for playing Mozart music to a baby in the womb, it might rather scare the baby or just wake her up. Fetuses may have a good hearing, but their memory isn't too good. Research show they are able to form some memories, but consider that they will start recognizing their name only at 5-7 months old. Mozart will do little to their development. Considering the brain growth stages, this will definitely have no effect on anyone's chances of bringing up a Mozart's successor. Nothing will work better for the latter than instilling a passion for music early. And when I say "early", I do not mean a newborn or perhaps even a toddler. Whatever you do before the brain is ready will likely be wasted time. And if the passion for music does not come, some other passion will.

Precocity paradox

Kids with astronomical IQs tend to grow up to be successful but otherwise pretty normal, or dare I say, average adults. There is only a weak correlation between IQs above 120 (i.e. smart) and the degree of success in life. On the other hand, people with genius accomplishments often appear to be pretty ordinary while at school. It is the principle of slow but unrestrained growth that may explain the child prodigy paradox. Why so many prodigies burn out before reaching their adult peak? There have been a lot of hypotheses on the phenomenon:

  • unmet expectations
  • burnout
  • lost passions
  • excess parental ambition and frustration
  • the sense of losing ground to those who catch up at later years (see: Dangers of being a Straight A student)
  • disappointment with how the society works
  • inadequacy of childhood IQ measurements
  • our fascination with memory as opposed to true talent
  • in music, lack of correlation between instrumental proficiency and music genius, etc.

Very often the explanation may be simpler and not that optimistic. The explanation is rooted in understanding how the young brain develops:

Those who accelerate early may stagnate early
Kids who bloom late may bloom better
Kids who bloom late may bloom better

Figure: Precocity paradox explains why early acceleration may also result in an early stagnation. Slow and rich brain growth will prolong a set of unwelcome side effects of neurogenesis such as childhood amnesia. This may lead to an illusion that early academic training improves long-term developmental prospects. In reality, early acceleration may be a result of the crystallizing effect of stress on the brain structures. Kids who bloom late may bloom better. The best way to assist a healthy brain development is freedom and access to rich environments

Nigeria rules the world!

I am a great fan of African football. I always celebrate when "my" players bring home another world cup. Africa rules the world! If you are not too deep into football, you probably ask "World Cup? When? It is Germany and Brazil who seem to always win the Cup!". The fact is that Nigeria won the world cup 5 times. More than any other nation in history. Ghana won it 3 times. It all happened at the youth level. This is a happy story of precocity. If you look at those young African teams, they are not only more physical and stronger. They jump higher, run faster, and fear no bone-breaking challenge. They are also smarter. You can see that in their every move, decision, and their teamwork. They are happy. They play happy. Why didn't we have an African world champion at the senior level? It is because of the fact that precocity does not always translate to adult genius. West Africans reap a lot of benefit from accelerated motor development and early puberty. They are the best sprinters. Usain Bolt is of the same lineage. It is at the senior level, when the Prussian discipline takes over and we grind to the peak of human achievement. Perhaps this is why Germany is the current title holders (2016). I have no doubt Africa's time is to come soon. Africans need to take better care of the precocious young before sending them out for exploitation in Europe? Africa needs to inject some Prussian planning and smart management. Precocity cannot be exploited. It must be managed in kid gloves.

Africa's early success is a good metaphor for brain development in education. Accelerated development does not always translate to peak performance at adulthood. Just the opposite, many a great physicist or mathematician started out with seemingly troubled childhood. Speaking late, suspected autism, monothematic interests, strange behavior, social issues, ostracism, troublemaking, bullying, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, Asperger, etc. This is often the price of a brain that keeps growing and fails to congeal its structure early. If your child is healthy but behind some targets, this might actually be a good thing.

Summary: baby brain problems

  • children have a very bad long-term memory
  • bad long-term memory in children results from fast growth, and re-structuring of the brain
  • the myth of children as perfect learning machines comes from their ability to store information in short-term memory
  • children store a lot of information in short-term memory because they spend all their days learning new things
  • children can use words and phrases in the long term because they keep relearning things they use often
  • slow development based on unrestricted brain growth may produce better outcomes in the long-term
  • early acceleration in development does not need to translate to success in adulthood
  • all forms of "accelerated learning" should be taken with caution
  • kids should never be made to learn if they show no interest or refuse (see: Learn drive, Pleasure of learning, and Push zone)
  • stress accelerates learning (which is bad for long-term development)
  • maternal separation improves memories via stress hormones. This may limit brain's growth potential
  • development acceleration induced by daycare may turn out to be harmful
  • infantile amnesia means that children hardly ever remember things from before the age of three
  • child prodigies often experience burnout at adolescence or early adulthood. This may be an expression of the early peak in development
  • playing Mozart to a womb is more likely to scare the baby than to produce a music genius
  • math and physics geniuses often come from troubled childhood