Why developing your child’s upper brain is so important

Learn about brain development in children - and how you can encourage it!

More about this topic

The human brain is complex and dynamic. No part of the brain, nor the brain as a whole, functions in isolation– everything within the brain is interconnected and what’s more, the human brain interacts with one’s body and one’s social and physical environments. The brain is constantly sending out and receiving information and physically changing as a result of this connection with the outside world.

Although there is much left to discover about the complexity of the human brain, for the purpose of an introduction, we can discuss a simple model that provides a framework for reflecting on early brain development. This model recognizes four functional regions of the brain – the Upper brain, the Lower brain, the Left brain and the Right brain (Siegel and Bryson, 2012). Although the ‘four brains’ model is perhaps seen as overly simplistic by current researchers, on a conceptual level, psychologists in the field still commonly refer to elements of it (Siegel, 2012; Sunderland, 2016; Gerhardt, 2014).

Of these ‘four brains’, one important distinction concerns the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ distinction. The Central and Lower brain comprises the brain stem and cerebellum which are responsible for automatic survival functions including breathing, hunger, temperature and our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The Central and Lower brain is also home to the limbic system which is responsible for triggering emotional responses to situations including rage, separation anxiety, fear, and lust. The limbic system has a significant role to play in interpreting social signals and building attachments. The Upper brain comprises the neocortex, which is responsible for executive functions including problem solving, planning, maintaining attention and weighing up decisions.

A newborn baby’s Upper brain is largely undeveloped and there is also a significant amount of development left to happen to link all four parts of the brain together, particularly with connecting the Upper brain with the Left, Right and Central and Lower regions of the brain. Siegel (2012) discusses how vital this connectivity is in his quote; “the whole …(brain is)… greater than the sum of its parts”, meaning that it is the integration between different regions of the brain that leads to effective and healthy emotional, social and cognitive regulation in later life. It is precisely this integration of different regions of the brain that we hope to support you and your child with through the use of Art’tachment.

Development of the Upper brain and integration of the whole brain takes time. Research shows that the majority of this development occurs in a child’s earlier years (Sunderland, 2016). In a child’s early years (before the Upper brain has developed) if the child feels there is a threat approaching (either large or small), their Central emotional brain and the their Lower instinctual brain will respond to the threat. Until a healthy Upper brain and efficient integration between all regions of the brain is developed the child will not be able to make a regulated response to the situation and may overreact emotionally or go into survival mode unnecessarily. This might help explain why children in their early years often over react (either with raw emotions or even a fight, flight or freeze response) to the smallest of problems!

What sorts of experiences and relationships promote healthy brain development and whole brain integration and what sorts don’t? There has been much research to show the type of experiences and relationships that are damaging to children’s brain development. At the extreme end, research shows that childhood abuse and stress negatively impact on brain development and brain integration (Teicher, 2010). Fortunately, for most families this isn’t an appropriate comparison- most parents already know how to get it ‘really wrong’- (and avoid this at all costs) and instead they would like to know how to get it ‘really right’. Well it’s all about practice… the more a child uses the Upper brain and the more the child combines this Upper brain thinking with stimulation of the Left, Right, Central and Lower brain the more developed the Upper brain becomes and the more established and efficient the integration of the brain as a whole becomes. So as a parent it’s all about providing as many opportunities as possible to practice this- to encourage your child to think using the Upper brain, and what’s more, to try to connect those thoughts with Central and Lower brain, Left brain and Right brain stimulation.

Reading and resources

Here are some books we recommend about child brain development: