A Growing Brain Needs to Move and Go Places

Human cognition is based upon the simple concept of movement. The more the growing human moves — and is given good feedback on his movement — the better the brain can grow and integrate its many potential functions. Conversely, if young brains (and bodies) are confined to a limited area of movement, the potential of their brains is shuttered and curtailed far beneath their potential development.

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The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Dr. John M. O’Keefe, Dr. May-Britt Moser and Dr. Edvard I. Moser for their discoveries of nerve cells in the brain that enable a sense of place and navigation. These discoveries are ground breaking and provide insights into how mental functions are represented in the brain and how the brain can compute complex cognitive functions and behaviour. An internal map of the environment and a sense of place are needed for recognizing and remembering our environment and for navigation. This navigational ability, which requires integration of multi-modal sensory information, movement execution and memory capacities, is one of the most complex of brain functions.

The work of the 2014 Laureates has radically altered our understanding of these functions. John O’Keefe discovered place cells in the hippocampus that signal position and provide the brain with spatial memory capacity. May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser discovered in the medial entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain next to hippocampus, grid cells that provide the brain with an internal coordinate system essential for navigation. Together, the hippocampal place cells and the entorhinal grid cells form interconnected nerve cell networks that are critical for the computation of spatial maps and navigational tasks.

2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

These findings have been extended to show in better detail how humans track their own locations dynamically, while keeping track of the locations of other people in the vicinity. More intriguingly, there is now evidence to suggest that we keep track of time using the same neural mechanisms that allow us to keep track of place!

Eichenbaum’s work dovetails with a 15-year trend in neuroscience research that suggests the hippocampus is more flexible than scientists expected. Researchers traditionally thought of it as a mapmaker — place-encoding cells were discovered 40 years ago — but growing evidence suggests it can encode other types of information as well. According to the newest picture, place cells can map not just space but other relevant variables. Time is one of them, but others are possible. For example, “a wine taster might have a space of wine tastes and smells,” Frank said.

Time and Place and Much, Much More

It is not just time and place that are dynamically assessed by these specialized cells, of course. Anything involving distinctions that are “distance-like” such as musical intervals, mathematical arrays, or any abstract concepts that require the same type of distinction analogous to distances in space or time — are likely to be assessed and estimated using the same neural mechanisms.

In other words, the ability of the young human to learn to think in complex cognitive terms, is held hostage to the way he was raised as a child. If he was locked in a closet most of his childhood, his mental growth will be badly stunted. If he traveled the world with his parents — whether as a missionary family, an army brat, or any other type of travel where he is kept aware of where he is and where he has been — the parts of his brain that are critical to complex cognition will develop to allow more capable “mental computation.”

If the grid cells and place cells and their associated neural circuits, are not laid out in a complex enough relationship to each other from a relatively young age, their ability to help their owner think his way out of a wet paper bag will be severely impaired.

It is not yet clear how much of this very special brain circuitry is genetically pre-determined and how much of it relies upon acute awareness of physical movement — and exposure to other forms of “cognitive movement” such as music, art, mathematics, and imagination — during the formative years.

Genetics of brain structure and intelligence PDF

One of the many tragedies of the political over-reaction to the Chinese pandemic — involving lockdowns, school closures, the shutdown of tourist industries around the world, and severely restricted travel — is that young people have been isolated and confined. This means that their brains have been isolated and confined, and therefore stunted — at least temporarily. This is a crime. Whether the guilty parties will ever be punished, is a question that may remain unanswered for some time yet.

For any parents who are sitting on the fence concerning this question, it may be a good time to revisit the portion of Khalil Gibran’s work, “The Prophet,” which deals with the relationship between parents and children:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite.
And He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hands be for happiness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves the bow that is stable.

.Khalil Gibran

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1 Response to A Growing Brain Needs to Move and Go Places

  1. info says:

    The body that goes on adventures. Takes the brain on adventures. And result in a healthy and well functioning mind.

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