Sunday, April 8, 2007

Definition: Critical Window of Development

The quick explanation: A critical window is the period of time during development that the brain is open to a particular type of experience to result in a particular talent, and after the window closes, this talent can no longer be learned.

Boy, that's a mouthful!

Here's a pretty straightforward example from vision: the condition called strabismus (lazy eye). With this condition, the muscles that move the eyes around do not act in a coordinated way; one eye lolls about while the other is looking at the object that the person is interested in. There are ways of fixing this problem. However, if it is not fixed by the age of 4, then there is an aftereffect: the person is never able to see in 3-D. They can take guesses based on relative size and looking at shadows, but they cannot take the information from each eye and integrate it into a single picture with depth, the way most people can. I have a friend whose strabismus wasn't fixed until too late, and she cannot drive at dusk and dawn because the hazy light removes all of her depth cues. She can't tell if things on the road are 10 feet versus 50 feet away, which can be a major safety issue.

Once the critical window for depth perception has shut, there is no way that a person can learn this vital skill. There are no surgeries or therapies that can make the brain use the pictures from both eyes at the same time to figure out how far various objects are. Try spending 10 minutes walking around with one eye closed. You can estimate some distances (like my friend can, using shadows and sizes) but not all of them. Try it just after sunset to really disorient yourself!

Most people have 3-D vision, because most people have the experience of having their eyeballs pointing in the same direction before their 4th birthday. The only way that we know that there is a window at all is that there are some people who do not follow the regular pattern and have lifelong debilities as a result.

It can be tricky figuring out when developmental windows open and close. After years of research, however, it is a given that they do exist. What makes a brain become receptive to the input (the window opens)? What makes it no longer receptive (the window closes)? That is still an open debate; for numerous windows, however, it looks like the rush of hormones at puberty are the trigger. Many windows close between 12 and 18 years of age. Of course, several others open up at this time, too, so I'm not saying puberty is bad per se, but that the hormones are a needed part of proper brain development, acting almost like a timer.

You can try to teach someone something until you are blue in the face, but if it is before their window has opened up, or after it has closed, then they will not learn it. Or they might learn it a little bit, using the wrong part of the brain, but will never be good at it.

Not everything has a critical window. Bicycle-riding, like all talents that rely on man-made tools, does not have a window: once your sense of balance is pretty good, you could learn. Or you could wait 20 years, and you could still learn! I suppose that an elderly person who has lost their sense of balance and has never before tried to learn how to ride a bike would have trouble, but that is not because a specific "critical window for bicycle riding" has closed.

So, a quick recap: The potential for learning something becomes available inside the brain, the person has some time (usually measured in years) in which to learn it, and then a change happens inside the brain that prevents a person who has not yet had the right experiences from learning it. All critical windows open at a specific time and shut at a specific time during the course of development.

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