Social experience literally shapes critical details of brain physiology, sculpting an infant’s brain to fit the culture into which the child is born. Six-month-olds can hear or make every sound in virtually every human language. But within a mere four months, nearly two-thirds of this capacity has been cut away. The slashing of ability is accompanied by ruthless alterations in cerebral tissue. Brain cells remain alive only if they can prove their worth in dealing with the baby’s physical and social surroundings. Half the brain cells we are born with rapidly die. The 50 percent of neurons which thrive are those which have shown they come in handy for coping with such cultural experiences as crawling on the polished mud floor of a straw hut or navigating on all fours across wall-to-wall carpeting, of comprehending a mother’s words, her body language, stories, songs, and the concepts she’s imbibed from her community. Those nerve cells stay alive which demonstrate that they can cope with the quirks of strangers, friends, and family. The 50 percent of neurons which remain unused are literally forced to commit preprogrammed cell death suicide. The brain which underlies the mind is jigsawed like a puzzle piece to fit the space it’s given by its loved ones and by the larger framework of its culture’s patterning.
What does it mean for the future that today children will learn to use iPhones before they learn to speak?