How does a Baby’s Brain Work?

The first year a baby’s brain needs love to develop. What happens in the first year is profound.

By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee Photographs by Lynn Johnson

In the late 1980s, when the crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging America’s cities, Hallam Hurt, a neonatologist in Philadelphia, worried about the damage being done to children born to addicted mothers. She and her colleagues, studying children from low-income families, compared four-year-olds who’d been exposed to the drug with those who hadn’t. They couldn’t find any significant differences. Instead, what they discovered was that in both groups the children’s IQs were much lower than average.

“These little children were coming in cute as buttons, and yet their IQs were, like, 82 and 83,” Hurt says. “Average IQ is 100. It was shocking.”

The revelation prompted the researchers to turn their focus from what differentiated the two groups toward what they had in common: being raised in poverty.

How does a Baby’s Brain Work? video from The National Geographic, Jan. 2015

The researchers found that children who received more attention and nurturing at home tended to have higher IQs. Children who were more cognitively stimulated performed better on language tasks, and those nurtured more warmly did better on memory tasks. The results demonstrated just how critically important an emotionally supportive environment is at a very young age.

Read the National Geographic article here as a PDF file.


 Related articles on nurture and brain development in early childhood