Does your child ever wonder how she’s able to do…anything at all? When she wants to run, how does she tell her legs to move? When she touches something hot, how does she move her hand away without even thinking about it? The simple answer to that is…the brain!

The brain is the powerful organ in our heads that controls every action that our bodies take. Even the smallest, most automatic actions like breathing and heartbeat take place because the brains tells the body to do so!

In today’s Explain to Kids, we will be exploring the most important ways in which the brain functions. How does the brain send messages to the body? How does the brain know what’s going on outside the body? Does the brain grow? Let’s have these questions answered!

In reality, brain function is incredibly complex. But for the purposes of this lesson, we can divide the brain into four main parts: Sensory, Survival, Decision, and Memory. Memory is the glue that connects the Sensory, Survival, and Decision parts of the brain.

Whenever the brain sends or receives a message, connections called neural pathways are formed.

These neural pathways become useful once they’ve been formed because they can used over and over again. They also change with every new experience we have!

Can your child recite the alphabet off the top of her head? Of course she can! That’s because she’s sung the alphabet song a gazillion times by this point. Since the neural pathways that remember the alphabet have been reused so many times, they’ve become very strong connections.

In comparison, something you said to her yesterday at lunch may be difficult to recall because (a)what you said wasn’t particularly important, and (b)you didn’t repeat it. If you and your child had the exact same conversation regularly, recalling what you said would be much easier for her. The more that certain neural pathways are used, the stronger the memory becomes in your brain.

Consisting of four lobes (pictured below), the Sensory part of our brains takes up the most space within our heads. These four lobes connect the brain to the outside world by turning raw sensory experiences into sensory information that makes sense to Survival and Decision.

Sensory experiences — sight, smell, taste, touch, sound — are collected from the sensory organs (eyes, nose, tongue, skin, ears) and sent to the brain. But all of these raw experiences don’t mean anything to Survival and Decision. This is where the Sensory lobes in your child’s brain work to take these experiences and make sense of them.

Let’s consider that the following are the raw experiences that your child’s sensory organs have collected:

Sight: silver colour, shiny, reflective
Touch: hard, cold, sharp

The Sensory lobes would process this raw information and come to the conclusion that she’s holding a pair of scissors (based on her previous memories of holding and seeing scissors). Using this processed sensory information, Decision and Survival can now tell the body to act accordingly.

e.g. Decision can take action to cut paper or Survival can take action to put down the dangerously sharp scissors.

Think of the brain as a house. In this house, Sensory would be the door through which information is passed to Survival and Decision.

Since Survival is on the first level, sensory information will reach it first. This allows Survival to spring into action quicker than Decision.

Unlike Decision, Survival doesn’t wait for all the information before giving instructions to the body because its priority is to act as fast as possible to save us from danger.

More on Survival below…

Survival, also known as Fight-or-Flight instinct, is made up of the amygdala(above), a small almond-shaped tissue. Don’t be fooled by its size; this part of the brain has the capability to take control of the entire body!

Survival enables the body to react quickly in order to stay alive and uninjured. Using sensory information, Survival determines that we are in danger. Thus, it sends out messages to the body to generate more energy, for the heart to beat faster, and for muscles to move quicker. Without thinking consciously at all, we are able to counter the danger as fast as we can.

Imagine that there is a ball flying towards your face at a very high speed. How would you react? You will probably feel your heart beat much faster and you will raise your arms quickly to shield your face, seemingly, without even thinking about it. This is Survival taking control and giving your body instructions to save yourself from danger.

Did you know? 
At birth, the only part of our brains that is fully formed is Survival. This is very important for babies and small children whose bodies need a great deal of protection from harm. At an age when your children cannot yet use their words to ask for help, Survival prompts them to cry for attention so that you will help them.

Think back to the last time your child screamed and cried when you left her at school (even though you told her that you’ll be back to pick her up)? Thinking about it now, it seems rather silly, doesn’t it? Being with her teachers and friends at school doesn’t put your child in danger.

Sometimes, the part of the brain that controls Survival instincts can think that we need to be protected even though we’re really fine. This is because Survival often acts without waiting for all of the sensory information to come in. In this case, your child’s Survival instinct acted too quickly based on information that you were leaving her without waiting for the information that you will come back for her.

Even though your child had screamed and cried when you first left her at school, she calmed down eventually. Why is that? When Survival wrongly sends us into a panic, Decision has the power to take back control and tell the body to calm down.

Decision takes a longer time to react because it waits to receive more sensory information before taking action. Thus, oftentimes, Survival will have already given the body the Fight-or-Flight command before Decision can even finish processing sensory information.

The following is the series of events that take place within your child’s body and brain where sensory information is sent to Survival and Decision:

  1. You take your child to school.
  2. You
    (a)leave her there and, 
    (b)tell her that you will come back later.
  3. Survival receives only (a).
  4. Survival determines that she is being abandoned by you in a new place.
  5. Survival reacts quickly without waiting for more sensory information.
  6. Crying and screaming are ways to attract attention for help. So, Survival sends a message to your child’s face to start crying and screaming.
  7. Decision receives all of the information, (a) and (b).
  8. Decision helps your child understand that she is not being abandoned and that you will come back later to pick her up.
  9. Decision sends the message to her face to stop crying and screaming, and to her entire body to calm down.

The subsequent times that you drop your child off at school, the memory of being safe at school gradually strengthens and she becomes less and less likely to cry at the gate.

The Decision part of the brain, consisting of the frontal lobe, is the most complex part of the brain. This is the part that makes us distinctly human and sets us apart from other animals.

Decision enables higher-order thinking, which involves

  1. suppressing the impulse of Survival,
  2. and using information from Sensory lobes to decide to move, express emotions, or speak.

This part of your brain is one that takes the longest to develop. Up until your child is in her twenties, it is constantly learning and honing its ability to be logical, creative and expressive.

Its ability to be rational is what helps us control our impulses. Oftentimes, when we feel frustrated, we may think about screaming to relieve the stress. Luckily for us, Decision prevents us from screaming in public because it can assess that it would be inappropriate. Since this part of the brain is largely undeveloped in very young children, screaming toddlers in public places is not an uncommon sight.

Feel like you understand the inner workings of your child’s brain a little better to explain this to her? Pass on the knowledge to your fellow parents and teachers!