A gut instinct for learning: How ‘friendly germs’ shape our children

Artwork created by local artist, Leila Fanner
Artwork created by local artist, Leila Fanner
Leila Fanner

From the Human Factor: The moments we become parents: Personal stories of love, fear and hope.

Like you, I began life as a freshly fertilised egg: just one cell, called a zygote, containing the genetic archives of my ancestors and the forecasts of my future. Then I divided into two, then four, then eight – until I was a tiny round ball of over 100 identical cells.

At that point, I started to grow into different types of cells, which eventually became my skin, my heart, my brain and all the other organs of my body.

These cells are still connected to each other through nerves and blood vessels and a myriad of chemical processes that make me think and act as one. Now I have about 30 trillion human cells – one hundred times the number of stars in the Milky Way.

Oh, and I share my body with just as many bacteria. So do you.

Before you make a frantic call to your doctor for a massive dose of antibiotics, know this: about 30 neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers released by nerve cells – are produced in the gut through the interaction between billions of bacteria and human cells.

For example, half of the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine is produced in your gut, as is 90% of serotonin, which influences mood, social behaviour, sleep, sexual desire and memory.

Microbes – transmitted from mother to child during childbirth – regulate our immune system, emotions, personality, and ability to think. As we grow up, the perpetual hustle and bustle of these ‘friendly germs’ in and out of our bodies constantly connects us to the soil of the earth.

During pregnancy, another vital connection – the umbilical cord – provides a continuous stream of energy and nutrients to make us grow.

In the first three months, most of the effort is directed towards the primal parts of the developing brain to regulate bodily functions like heartbeat and breathing that keep us alive.

That process establishes seamless connections between body and brain, which serve to protect and to nurture, to survive and to thrive. Consider the survival instinct triggered by that awful feeling of fear in the pit of your stomach.

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When you get a fright, bodily signals evoke strong emotions in the lower part of your brain, prompting the motor cortex to tell your legs to get out of there, fast! It all happens automatically before you can really think about it.

If our brain development stopped there, we’d be just like any other member of the animal kingdom with basic instincts suited to our environment, but without the capacity for complex thought and imagination.

But our foetal brain then starts to develop a mind of its own, a higher consciousness of our environment and the relationships that hold our lives together.

The functions of the mind – including the ability to think, to feel emotions and to socialise with others – are generated by an interplay between body and brain through chemicals carried by nerves, lymph and blood vessels.

Think of ‘thinking’ as a flow of consciousness that results when bodily sensations merge with streams of emotion and reasoning emanating from different parts of the brain.

From this confluence in the thalamus of the brain emerges the grand river of the mind, enabling us to immerse ourselves more fully in the experience of being human than any of the streams of sense, emotion or logic on their own.

This is the mechanism of learning – a fusion of data from lived experience and stored memories, laced with the pain and delights of physical sensation and the bitter-sweetness of human emotion.

Critical elements of reasoning and decision-making – such as memory, mental concentration and the ‘connecting of dots’ – are filtered through ‘social emotions’ such as guilt, shame, empathy or pride.

The educationist Immordino-Yang and neurologist Antonio Damasio refer to this blending process as ‘emotional learning’. Its power can be either enhanced by neurotransmitters triggered by positive stimuli or inhibited by negative ones.

Also Read: Why teen depression rates are rising faster for girls than boys

Shame a child and she will shrink emotionally and intellectually. Praise her and make her feel like somebody – and she will thrive.

Although psychologists have long stressed the relationship between emotional well-being and learning, its physical basis has only become clearer in the past 25 years.

When physical injury or anomaly damages the links between the emotional and cognitive centres of the brain, our ability to reason and to make real-life decisions (called executive functioning) is compromised.

When these links are chemically damaged by emotional injury or toxic stress, these higher functions are similarly affected.

On the other hand, relationships of love, care and support enhance learning and the ability to make real-life decisions.

The first and most fundamental social relationship is between a baby and her mother, shaped in the uterus by an exchange of hormones between mother and child.

Physiologically, the interaction may seem quite brutal, as the mother’s body tries to protect itself from overenthusiastic invasion by the growing foetus, which really acts like a parasite.

In normal pregnancies though, it’s an evenly matched tussle in which neither party actually gets hurt.

After nine months of pregnancy – a draining and scary process that pushes a woman to her emotional and physical limits – she finally can hold her baby and realise that she’d been a mother throughout that time.

Also Read: 'He felt very important and was very protective of her': Mom shares how her son helped birth his baby sister

The ultimate magic of pregnancy is the strong bond between mother and child, glued together by a neurotransmitter called oxytocin that builds empathy and trust in both of them . It comes as no surprise that oxytocin is known as the ‘hormone of love’.

Love is a primal instinct that sets us free by connecting us.

But this isn’t just a story about motherhood. When I, as a father, held my baby and gazed lovingly into her face, my whole body reacted, too.

Hormones and neurotransmitters were released, one of them being dopamine, which filled me with a sense of happiness and security and fulfillment.

Dopamine was released in my daughter’s brain, too, sensitising her to my voice, language and movements.

Dopamine stimulates learning. As all three of my children grew, embraced by love, they became increasingly open to new thoughts and ideas, and their brains started to draw pictures of their own.

They were freed to think and to learn and to imagine – because they are connected, because they are one with those they love. Love unlocks the promise of the mind. It sets us free to think for ourselves.

We nourish education through love, care and stimulation, which continue to pulse through the figurative umbilical cord between children and their caregivers.

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These nutrients evoke positive emotions that enable abstract thoughts to be effectively applied in real life. They are vital to a child’s education throughout their early years and formal schooling.

But the very act of providing these nutrients is itself driven by parents’ strong emotions of hope and fear for our children.  Hope that our children will have better lives than our own and that they will be able to reach their full potential.

Fear that something dreadful will happen to them, or that they will not turn out as we had hoped, or that we as individuals won’t be able to provide enough for them.

Many African cultures have sought to protect and enhance their children’s prospects by sharing parental responsibility so that they can draw on a wider pool of love, safety and stimulation.

In Xhosa culture, the rites of inkaba – burying the physical umbilical cord, placenta and some of the child’s hair in the soil – acknowledge the end of the bodily connection between a mother and child, and affirm the role of ancestors and living members of the clan who have promised to protect and nurture.

Similar practices are found in the Shona and Ndebele cultures of Zimbabwe and among the Fang people of West Africa – and indeed, in many communities across the world .

These biological and social evolutionary instincts are our greatest gift to our children’s education. Arguably, they are as essential as the content knowledge of the national curriculum.

These instincts should be harnessed and given the space to work in ways that enable children to flourish, even as we have to learn to make space for teachers and other co-creators of our children’s education.

Also Read: What parents can expect from the proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill

In practice, this means recognising that we, as parents and caregivers, are our children’s first educators.

It means acknowledging parents’ love and support as our most critical contribution to schooling – far more important than trying to tutor subject-specific homework.

It means giving parents more power to be champions for our children in school matters as well because we, more than anyone else, instinctively know what is best for them.

This article forms part of DGMT’s Human Factor publication. Issue 2 explores the power of parents as their children's first educators and their right to continue to champion their children’s education throughout schooling. Read it online or request a printed copy at dgmt.co.za/the-human-factor.  

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