Book Club: On Synaptogenesis, Learning, and Attachment

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Social animal 2 post

The other night I dreamed I was looking in the mirror when my cell phone rang. I picked it up to find my eldest son on the other end.

“I just called to say goodbye,” he said.

And then he hung up.

I started awake in the dark. Silently, I rose from my bed, crept down the hall, and pushed his door open. Then I bent low and did that thing I had done a thousand times in his infancy—strained to see the rise and fall of his chest…listened for the rhythm of respiration in the dark.

* * * * *

In chapter four of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, character, and Achievement by David Brooks, we learn about “Mapmaking”: how our brains integrate the vast sea of stimuli we encounter in a lifetime into mental maps that help us make sense of the world.

Mapmaking relies heavily on synaptogenesis—Harold’s brain had over 100 billion cells, or neurons, in it. As Harold began making sense of the world, each of these neurons sent out branches to make connections with other neurons. The space where two branches for different neurons meet is called a synapse. Harold was making these connections at a furious pace. Some scientists calculate that humans create 1.8 million synapses per second from their second month in utero to their second birthday. The brain makes synapses to store information. Each thing we know is embodied in a network of neural connections.

In chapter six, we go to high school with Harold and learn all kinds of enlightening facts about the way the adolescent brain learns. We walk with Harold through four steps of learning:

Ms. Taylor had guided Harold through a method that had him surfing in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together—first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then willfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product…

Chapters four and six have some fascinating research insights, and the story of Harold moves along delightfully; but after my dream about my son’s goodbye, it is chapter five that I am resting in. Here Brooks traverses the familiar territory of Attachment Theory—carefully laying out the work of British psychologist John Bowlby and his protégé, Mary Ainsworth, on secure and insecure attachments. Brooks points out that securely attached children cope better with stress, and a secure attachment even at age one, correlates reasonably well with how people will do in school, how they will fare in life and how they will develop relationships later in life…

Simply by observing attachment patterns, researchers were able to determine with 77 percent accuracy which children—observed at forty-two months—would drop out of high school. IQ and test data did not improve upon these predictions. Seventy-seven percent accuracy. I was absorbing this when my eyes fell on this paragraph:

…If there is one thing developmental psychologists have learned over the years, it is that parents don’t have to be brilliant psychologists to succeed. They don’t have to be supremely gifted teachers…parents just have to be good enough. They have to provide their kids with stable and predictable rhythms. They need to be able to fall in tune with their kids’ needs, combining warmth and discipline. They need to establish the secure emotional bonds that kids can fall back upon in the face of stress. They need to be there to provide living examples of how to cope with the problems of the world so that their children can develop unconscious models in their heads.

My son will turn fifteen in a couple weeks. He keeps his bedroom door closed these days. Our boundaries have changed. I may no longer hug him spontaneously in public. We don’t talk the way we used to. He’d rather be with people who are a bit—er—younger than I. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out what that dream was about. I’ve been looking in the mirror many-a-day wondering if I’m doing this thing right—wondering if I’m losing him.

And as I ponder what Brooks means when he says that parents just have to be good enough, a memory stirs of my boy in the third grade.

Mom, he had said to me. You’ve got to stop this hugging stuff.

And I remember—so clearly—the blue of his eyes and how his nose looked with all those freckles.

Never, I said. I’ll never stop.

And he had smiled.

Maybe providing kids with stable and predictable rhythms, maybe giving kids a living example…maybe that requires something more than just good enough. There are no guarantees, this I know, but maybe...just maybe that's one reason why we need more than just ourselves.

What do you think? Link up below with a post at your blog or simply leave us a thought in the comment section. We tackle three more chapters next week: Norms, Self-Control, and Culture.

Image by Eric Fischer. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura J. Boggess.