Early Intelligence:
How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life

Lise Eliot

Penguin 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001 http://dannyreviews.com/
Though it contains a fair amount of "how to" information and will obviously be of particular interest to parents, Early Intelligence is not a parenting book. Eliot is a neurobiologist and her primary interest is in the development of the human brain and the growth of perception, personality, language, and intelligence; she offers a wealth of fascinating material drawn from medicine, child development, psychology, and neurobiology, among other fields. Her account is backed by sixty pages of references into the scientific literature, though these are left to the end and labelled by page numbers, with the text itself kept free of any kind of reference notation.

Eliot begins with an introduction to brain development and chapters on pre-natal influences (with advice on risks for pregnant women) and the effects of birth itself (including a comparison of different obstetric procedures). Successive chapters then describe the development, from in the womb to adulthood, of the different senses: touch, balance and the vestibular system, smell, taste (and nutrition and food preferences), vision, hearing, and motor skills. Then there are chapters on social-emotional growth, memory, and language, before Eliot ventures onto the development of intelligence, its variation with gender and different genetic and environmental factors, and practical tips on "how to raise a smarter child".

Apart from a few stories about her own children, Eliot relies not at all on anecdotal tales, with individuals only described in extreme cases such as the abused child Genie or the amnesiac H.M. She does try to humanise her account a little by giving random proper names to hypothetical babies and parents, but Early Intelligence is mostly rather dry. Eliot covers general biology

"The vestibular system plays an essential role in our abilities to maintain head and body posture, and for accurately moving most parts of our body, especially the eyes. By sensing the direction of gravity and motion, it allows us to adjust our body's position to maintain balance and smoothness of action. The vestibular system is what allows you to go jogging, for example, and not see the world bobbing up and down; it detects the vertical motion of your body and automatically compensates the eye muscles to move the eyes in compensation, keeping the visual field in front of you constant."
embryo and infant growth
"Babies first bridge the gap between sounds and meaning as early as nine or ten months of age. They learn the names of family members and pets, the meaning of no! and perhaps a few general labels like shoe and cookie. By his first birthday, the average child understands around seventy words, mostly nouns like people's names and terms for objects, but also certain social expressions, like hi and bye-bye. Of course, he cannot say nearly that many. The median number of words spoken by a one-year old is six, but many say none at all, and a few speak up to fifty. There's typically about a five-month lag between the time a toddler can understand a certain number of words and when he can actually speak that many."
the development of the brain and nervous system
"Once activated, olfactory epithelia send their action potentials along short axons that travel straight up through pores in the skull, and they synapse in the olfactory bulb, the first relay point within the brain. This oblong structure (there is one for each nostril) lies underneath the frontal lobe, just above the nasal cavity. The olfactory bulb contains a small network of neurons that integrate information from all of the epithelial receptor cells. Its output neurons, the mitral cells, send their long axons along the base of the frontal lobe, in a band known as the olfactory tract, to several different areas in the primary olfactory cortex, which is located at the bottom, innermost bulges of the temporal lobe. Included among the several direct targets of olfactory bulb neurons are portions of the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls our emotions, drives, and memories."
the epidemiology, prophylaxis, and treatment of infant and maternal medical problems
"About 20 percent of infected infants, or about one or two out of every ten thousand babies born, will be severely impaired due to toxoplasmosis, with problems that include mental retardation, epilepsy, spasticity, blindness, or hearing loss. Another eight out of ten thousand will have less severe central nervous system (CNS) damage; they may show no signs of infection at birth, but milder hearing and IQ deficits become apparent later in childhood. Fortunately antiparasitic drugs are available that can be given to the pregnant mother and greatly reduce the risk of severe damage to the fetus, although they don't completely eliminate it. The problem, however, is in identifying the women who need this treatment. Since the infection rarely produces symptoms in adults, most women who become infected during pregnancy are unaware of it."
and a range of other material.

Included in this are quite a number of controversial topics. Eliot highlights concerns about the overuse of Caesarean sections and anaesthesia in childbirth, stresses the advantages of breast-feeding, and touches on debates over circumcision and the possibility of a link between prenatal stress and later sexual orientation. She gives a reasonably balanced account of the intelligence and nature-nurture debate, using IQ and "baby IQ" results fairly extensively but highlighting their limitations and going into details about the different kinds of intelligence. (She does, unfortunately, feel obliged to give numbers for an illusory quantitative division of causes between "genetic" and "environmental".) And then there's the debate about working mothers and the effects of childcare...

Note: Early Intelligence was published as What's Going on in There? in the United States.

August 2001

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books about education
- books about health + medicine
- more human biology
- more psychology
%T Early Intelligence
%S How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
%A Eliot, Lise
%I Penguin
%D 2001
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0140256423
%P viii,533pp