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Enrichment: Key to Children’s Intelligence and Creativity
New Book Co-authored by Berkeley Brain Researcher Marian Diamond Reveals How an Enriched Environment Helps Develop Children’s Brains

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted June 10, 1998

Marian Diamond knows brains. As a mother she raised four of her own – two female and two male – and is one of only a few scientists to study Einstein’s brain cells.

For more than three decades, much of that time as a Berkeley professor of integrative biology, she has delved into the workings of rat brains and has been known to lug a human brain around campus in a flowered hatbox – for instructional purposes, of course.

So when she and science writer Janet Hopson write a book on how to nurture and enrich children’s minds, parents should take heed.

“Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth through Adolescence,” published this year by Dutton, is full of advice distilled from years of research and culled from interviews with scores of brain and behavioral scientists.

It is a handy guide for parents – as well as teachers – on how to get the most out of children’s brains, from fetus to teen.

“We have to catch the brain while it’s growing rapidly after birth,” said Diamond, who served as director of UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science from 1990 to 1996. “If you provide early enrichment while the brain is growing rapidly, you can get larger changes than after it has reached its peak of growth.”

The “magic trees” referred to in the book’s title are the branches of the tree-like nerve cells in the brain, each twig almost touching another nerve cell branch in a vast, interconnected network. These branches grow enormously during childhood, making a child’s brain “a highly dynamic organ that feeds on stimulation and experience and responds with the flourishing of branching, intertwined neural forests,” the authors write.

Diamond and Hopson explain how the brain develops and how this correlates with the behavioral changes in the child. Along the way they survey the many studies of human and animal brain development and draw inferences about the best way to enrich a child’s brain.

“I haven’t seen any other book on the developmental sequence of a child’s brain and early adolescence anywhere,” said Hopson, a Berkeley-based science writer with more than half a dozen books and textbooks to her credit. “We bit off a bigger chunk of science than anyone else has tried to do in a popular book, based on interviews with neuroscientists, child development experts, teachers, parents and physicians.”

They answer questions such as: Is there any danger of over stimulation? Does enrichment benefit all children? How can schools and teachers help? And they include more than 100 pages of learning resources.

Diamond said previous books on the subject have either been too technical or wrong. What spurred “Magic Trees of the Mind” was the feeling that parents and educators were just not getting the message.

“I’ve given over 800 lectures in my career and still it’s as if the idea that the brain can be enriched is new,” she said. “The initial discovery that branches of nerve cells could develop with enrichment was made 34 years ago in my laboratory. You just have to keep repeating the message.”

Knowledge of the effects of enrichment has advanced since then, but the basic message is the same as in 1964 – a stimulating environment breeds better brains.

“I do believe it’s essential to share research findings with the public,” she said. “I was determined that these studies should not sit on the library shelf.”

Though the book stops at the teen years, around the age of 18, learning does not stop then. While the outer layers of the brain – the cerebral cortex – begin marked pruning of the nerve cell branches around 10 years of age, the role of stimulating or deprived environments is important in determining the destiny of the nerve cell branches at any age, Diamond emphasized. As a model, she is learning the piano – at age 71.

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