What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

An understanding of how a baby’s brain is formed, and when each sense, skill, and cognitive ability is developed.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. Written by Dr. Lise Eliot.

In this title, the author explains precisely how the baby’s brain is formed, and when and how each sense, skill, and cognitive ability is developed.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, how did the author delve into the minds of young children?

Vincent: Dr. Lise Eliot is a research neuroscientist who has made the study of the human brain her life’s work. However, it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that she became really intrigued with the study of brain development.

Specifically, she was interested in finding out how her role as a caregiver can affect this complex process. Some baby brain development is guided by genetics, but other parts are determined by the environment.

Karsen: So the author wanted to find out what parents can do to make their babies’ brains work better?

Vincent: Yes, her goal was to help babies become smarter, happier people. And she uses modern research into child psychology and neuroscience to help with this. A child’s mind, she says, starts in the womb but is an intricate interplay between nature and nurture.

Karsen: I see. So what parts are genetic predisposition versus childhood experiences?

Vincent: The author uses an analogy of a ball rolling down a hill. Gravity pulls the ball downward, but the path may be changed when it hits rocks in its path. She says that human development is similar to this. The main path is guided by our genes, but other factors can change the direction of our development.

Karsen: When does a baby’s brain start development?

Vincent: By 18 weeks into the pregnancy, the building blocks of the baby’s brain are already formed based on a sequence determined by our genes. The first thing the brain learns is how to keep us alive. This is when basic functions like controlling our heart rate are developed.

It’s not until later on that we learn more complex components.

Karsen: Things like imagination, logic, and forming memories come later, I assume. What happens after the baby is born?

Vincent: After birth, the brain develops neural connections. This is a healthy part of brain development and happens between the ages of one and eight. This is the part that requires nurture from a child’s environment and experiences.

Karsen: That’s interesting, and how did researchers discover this?

Vincent: It’s something that psychiatrists have known since the 1940s, when an experiment was conducted comparing two groups of children. In the first group, the children were raised by their mothers in prison. And in the second group, the babies were taken from their mothers and raised in a nursery.

The research found that children who grew up in the prison developed normally while having their mother’s care. However, the children in the nursery didn’t grow up with human contact or intellectually stimulating play. And as a result, their neural connections degenerated. By the time they reached the age of three, many of them couldn’t walk or talk.

Karsen: It sounds like pregnancy and birth are also really important to children’s development.

Vincent: The research shows that a mother’s behavior during pregnancy can definitely have lifelong consequences for children. For example, regular consumption of alcohol can cause mental retardation in newborns. Using over-the-counter drugs such as Aspirin can potentially cause internal bleeding in babies. Even frequent caffeine consumption has been linked to higher risks of miscarriages.

Karsen: Can the type of birth of a child have an impact on their development?

Vincent: It can. There were studies that showed that natural birth, which could be more painful for the mother, causes a newborn’s brain to release stress hormones that let them cope with the world and develop better reflexes.

On the other side, brain damage can also occur as a result of damage to the placenta or by the baby not getting enough oxygen. These complications could result in cerebral palsy, which is when a baby has limited movement and or a posture disorder.

Karsen: And after the baby is born, what’s the best way to stimulate learning?

Vincent: Eliot mentions that stimulating an infant’s sense of touch is a part of healthy development. Many studies showed that preterm babies can benefit from daily massages, which results in faster weight gain. Without stimulation, the brain will degenerate.

Making sure that infants have constant stimulation and experience touch is important. The child learns by touching things and watching how parents respond.

Karsen: Oh, so when babies watch how their parents handle hot objects, they can pick up skills that help with their own safety?

Vincent: Absolutely. Eliot shared an example of a French child named Victor who grew up alone. Since he never learned how to handle hot objects, he burnt his hands trying to pull potatoes out of a fire.

Karsen: Ouch, when do these sensory receptors form?

Vincent: Well, the connections between the sensory receptors and the mouth are formed first. Then the receptors in the hands form later. By the time that they’re 18 months old, children can perceive more subtle differences between different objects.

Karsen: What about the sense of taste and smell? When do those develop?

Vincent: Babies start developing their sense of smell from the time they are fetuses. They can start to recognize their mother’s smell. This is how they tell where their mother’s arms are because the body scent is strongest under the armpits. The smell also helps with self-soothing because babies can smell themselves when they raise their hands to their mouths.

Karsen: And what about the sense of taste? When do taste buds develop?

Vincent: The author says this happens pretty early, starting eight weeks after conception. In one study, doctors injected a sweetener into the fluid surrounding the fetuses. And the fetuses were able to taste the sugar and swallow more of the fluid than they usually did.

Karsen: Are there particular tastes that babies prefer?

Vincent: Generally, children like sweet and fatty tastes because they know these foods will provide energy. And as a result, bitter and sour tastes are often less favored.

Infants can’t taste the salt in foods until they are around four months old. Even while breastfeeding though, babies enjoy different tastes. For example, four-month-old babies consumed more milk if their mothers took garlic pills. Other flavors that made milk more interesting for infants were when the mom consumed vanilla, mint, or cheese.

Karsen: It sounds like the last senses to develop are hearing and vision.

Vincent: Eliot explains that babies actually have great hearing when they enter the world. They can even recognize sounds and voices they heard while in the womb. One study asked pregnant mothers to read the Dr. Suess book, The Cat in the Hat, a few times a day. When the babies were born, the mothers read the book shortly after birth. And the babies who were read that book in the womb reacted by more excitedly sucking on their pacifiers.

Karsen: That’s really interesting, it sounds like fetuses can even form memories from what they hear in the outside world. How about their vision?

Vincent: Well, there’s obviously not much use in having vision in the womb, so their vision is poor for quite some time after birth. Initially, babies can only see things that are close to them. When they reach their first birthday, they can start to see spatial depth and colors.

Karsen: How do babies develop their motor skills? Some animals can walk as soon as they’re born, but this obviously isn’t the case for human babies.

Vincent: Newborns do enjoy motion, and they’re used to it from being in the womb. So when a baby is crying, one of the best ways to calm him or her is to rock them gently in your arms. I remember when Lily, my daughter, was a newborn, she would love car rides or being pushed around in a stroller. This is because they love the sense of motion.

Over the first few months, babies can become more intentional with their motions. For example, by 3 months, they can start to grasp different objects. If you hold an eight-week-old baby with their feet on the ground, they’ll start to raise their knees one by one, but babies usually can’t walk until after their first birthday.

Karsen: What other childhood experiences have an impact on your baby’s development?

Vincent: One of my favorite milestones is around six months when babies start smiling when they hear other people’s voices. This is called social smiling, and even blind babies can develop this skill.

It’s one of the first signs of a developing personality.

Karsen: When it comes to personalities, are these more shaped by nature or nurture?

Vincent: The research shows that it’s a bit of both. For example, genetic patterns can determine whether a child is shy or outgoing. About 15% of all children are shy, and they’re genetically predisposed to be more alert, anxious, and have higher heart rates.

Personality can be shaped by a child’s upbringing though. For example, 40% of shy children can improve on their stress handling abilities when their parents help them learn how to better handle anxiety and build social skills.

Karsen: Can parents have a negative impact on their child’s personality?

Vincent: Unfortunately yes. Parents who suffer from depression can have a negative impact on their children’s personalities. These parents tend to smile and play less, so children can grow up with a depressive and irritable personality.

Karsen: Something I’ve always found fascinating is how easily kids pick up new languages, and then it’s so much harder to learn languages later on in life.

Vincent: Babies definitely have an advantage when it comes to learning languages. Usually around 9 months, babies can start to understand their first words. In their second year, babies can learn 8 new words each day until they’re six years old.

Karsen: So why do adults have a harder time learning new languages?

Vincent: Eliot explains as adults, our brain aims for mastery of the languages that we already know. When we’re young children, the left side of our brain reacts when we hear an unfamiliar language. But as an adult, that doesn’t happen anymore.

Karsen: Is there anything that parents can do to encourage language development?

Vincent: The more that children hear words, the easier it is for them to learn a language quickly. Parents can help their children acquire language by talking to them as much as possible. When you’re encouraging them to learn, researchers found that correcting children too often hampers their motivation to learn new words.

Karsen: So it sounds like parents should trust that their children will fix their mistakes over time. Nearly all parents want their children to be smart. What does the research show parents should do to help their children?

Vincent: Infants can’t take IQ tests, so there’s not an easy way to tell whether their intellect is developing at a healthy rate. However, reaching key milestones can help tell if children are on the right track. In our member’s area or mobile app, there’s a section called Ages & Stages where many of these milestones can be found.

For example, by the age of six, children will understand that water in a tall but narrow container can also fit into a short but wider container with the same amount of water.

One study found that infant children with 40 hours of weekly care outperformed children with no special care. Stimulating play with words and number games are a great way to start. Another great activity is to learn an instrument, which helps train motor skills, spatial awareness, timing, and listening skills.

When you play with your kids, you can set them up for a better adult life.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that both genetic predisposition and childhood environment can have an impact on a baby’s cognitive development. When parents create a positive, fun, and stimulating environment for their children, it will help them learn how to walk, talk, and think.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


As a research neuroscientist, Lise Eliot has made the study of the human brain her life’s work. But it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that she became intrigued with the study of brain development.

She wanted to know precisely how the baby’s brain is formed, and when and how each sense, skill, and cognitive ability is developed. And just as important, she was interested in finding out how her role as a nurturer can affect this complex process.

How much of her baby’s development is genetically ordained–and how much is determined by environment? Is there anything parents can do to make their babies’ brains work better–to help them become smarter, happier people?

Drawing upon the exploding research in this field as well as the stories of real children, What’s Going On in There? is a lively and thought-provoking book that charts the brain’s development from conception through the critical first five years. In examining the many factors that play crucial roles in that process, What’s Going On in There? explores the evolution of the senses, motor skills, social and emotional behaviors, and mental functions such as attention, language, memory, reasoning, and intelligence. This remarkable book also discusses:

  • how a baby’s brain is “assembled” from scratch
  • the critical prenatal factors that shape brain development
  • how the birthing process itself affects the brain
  • which forms of stimulation are most effective at promoting cognitive development
  • how boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently
  • how nutrition, stress, and other physical and social factors can permanently affect a child’s brain

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