Spatial cognition and memory have deeper importance to humans beyond daily survival: They inform our sense of self. Memories of the past are like pillars of our identity; we use them to build narratives about our lives. These stories inform our actions and choices, and create a framework for imagining our possible futures.
New research is shedding light on how the hippocampus develops in infancy and childhood, a time in which circuits are maturing, and new cells are firing and encoding space to create cognitive maps. It turns out that kids’ experiences—exploring environments, navigating space, self-locomotion—can influence how the hippocampus develops.
“This is very exciting because the maturation of the brain is often considered dependent on time and a genetic program,” says Alessio Travaglia, a researcher at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. “What we’re showing is that the development of the brain is not a program, it’s about experience. So if I am a baby in New York City or in a desert or a forest, the experiences I’m facing are different.”
News of such plasticity is both fascinating and alarming. It comes at a time when pediatricians are warning that children are given less time and freedom to play, and are more sedentary than ever before.
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