A Trip Down the Neural Pathways

Our family has always loved reading. Books were an integral part of my children’s lives from day one. Kids love hearing their favorite stories read to them over and over – many parents of creative, literate youngsters have probably read their child’s favorite story countless times, only to be met with cries of, “Read it again!”. After one such evening, during which I’d read my kids’ favorite story to them three times, I threw up my hands and said, “I can’t read it again. Let’s pick another one.” No, they wanted to hear the same story. Again. I finally relented; this time, though, I opted for a different approach. I decided to tell them the story rather than simply rereading it.

I knew the story well; I’d read it enough times that I could picture the characters in my mind, so I went for it, and as I told the tale, I saw a faraway look in my kids’ eyes: they were seeing the story in their heads, too. This, according to Cygnus Research Group, is the fundamental building block of imagination: “the innate human ability to independently form mental pictures”. My kids were using their imaginations, rather than the pictures in a book, to illustrate their favorite story. As I continued telling the tale, it slowly occurred to me that we were reaching a remarkable level of parent/child bonding. By utilizing eye contact, facial expressions, vocal, and physical cues to tell the story, I was connecting with my kids much more deeply l than I would if I were reading to them out of a book. I was watching my kids’ imaginations develop before my eyes.

A baby’s brain has 100 billion neurons at birth, only 17 percent of which are connected to one another. As the child grows, the neurons connect to one another; traveling through these connections are the electrical impulses that are the physical manifestation of the thought process. During a child’s first two years, brain activity speeds up exponentially as more and more neurons become wired together; this wiring is largely determined by our children’s everyday experiences. Dr. Marjorie Hogan, professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way: “The development of neural networks in a child’s brain is use-dependent.” In other words, what children see, pay attention to, and experience – i.e., how they use their brains on a day-to-day basis – determines how they develop mentally, and influences the structure of these neural pathways. Children show up in this world with a basic tool kit that includes imagination. If a child uses their imagination daily, this creativity will become a permanent part of the way their mind functions, on into adulthood.

Imagination isn’t just beneficial, it’s also necessary. Kids who let their imaginations soar generally cope better with problems than children who haven’t developed a knack for pretend play, according to research cited by Professor Sandra Russ of Case Western Reserve University. Imagination can even function as a survival skill, as illustrated by the incredible story of Vera Fryling, M.D., who, as a Jewish teenager in Berlin during World War II, spent the Nazi occupation living undercover. During the tedious days in hiding, Fryling dreamed of being a successful psychiatrist in a free land. She credits her flights of imagination with helping her survive occupation of her country by both the Nazis and, later, the Soviet army. Now a faculty member at San Francisco Medical School, Fryling enthuses, “Imagination can help one transcend the insults life has dealt us.”

Giving children opportunities to explore and express their imagination is an important part of a well-rounded childhood. We as parents hold in our hands the ability to develop this important skill in our children.

1. http://www.readingfoundation.org/parents/brain_research.jsp National Children’s Reading Foundation article © Michael Mann, 2009

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