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Critical Period In Brain Development and Childhood Learning

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Nov 18, 2021

Key Takeaways

  • Critical period is an ethological term which refers to a fixed and crucial time during the early development of an organism when it is able to learn things which are essential to survival. These influences impact the development of processes such as hearing and vision, social bonding, and language learning.
  • The term is most often experienced in the study of imprinting, where it is thought that young birds could only develop an attachment to the mother during a fixed time soon after hatching.
  • Neurologically, critical periods are marked by high levels of plasticity in the brain before neural connections become more solidified and stable. In particular, critical periods tend to end when synapses that inhibit the neurotransmitter GABA mature.
  • In contrast to critical periods, sensitive periods, otherwise known as “weak critical periods” happen when an organism is more sensitive than usual to outside factors in influencing behavior, but this influence is not necessarily restricted to the sensitive period.
  • Scholars have debated the extent to which older organisms can develop certain skills, such as natively-accented foreign languages, after the critical period.

Overview and History

The critical period is a biologically determined stage of development where an organism is optimally ready to acquire some pattern of behavior that are part of typical development. This period, by definition, will not recur at a later stage.

If an organism does not receive exposure to the appropriate stimulus needed to learn a skill during a critical period, it may be difficult or even impossible for that organism to develop certain functions associated with that skill later in life.

This happens because a range of functional and structural elements prevent passive experiences from eliciting significant changes in the brain (Cisneros-Franco et. al., 2020).

The first strong proponent of the theory of critical periods was Charles Stockhard (1921), a biologist who attempted to experiment with the effects of various chemicals on the development of fish embryos, though he gave credit to Dareste for originating the idea 30 years earlier (Scott, 1962).

Stockhard’s experiments showed that applying almost any chemical to fish embryos at a certain stage of development would result in one-eyed fish.

These experiments established that the most rapidly growing tissues in an embryo are the most sensitive to any change in conditions, leading to effects later in development (Scott, 1962).

Meanwhile, the psychologist Sigmund Freud attempted to explain the origins of neurosis in human patients as the result of early experiences, implying that infants are particularly sensitive to influences at certain points in their life.

Lorenz (1935) later emphasized the importance of critical periods in the formation of primary social bonds (otherwise known as imprinting) in birds, remarking that this psychological imprinting was similar to critical periods in the development of the embryo.

Soon thereafter, McGraw (1946) pointed out the existence of critical periods for the optimal learning of motor skills in human infants (Scott, 1962).

Example: Infant-Parent Attachment

The concept of critical or sensitive periods can also be found in the domain of social development, for example, in the formation of the infant-parent attachment relationship (Salkind, 2005).

Attachment describes the strong emotional ties between the infant and caregiver, a reciprocal relationship developing over the first year of the child’s life and particularly during the second six months of the first year.

During this attachment period, the infant’s social behavior becomes increasingly focused around the principal caregivers (Salkind, 2005).

The 20th century English psychiatrist John Bowlby formulated and presented a comprehensive theory of attachment influenced by evolutionary theory.

Bowlby argued that the infant-parent attachment relationship develops because it is important to the survival of the infant, and that the period from six to twenty-four months of age is a critical period of attachment.

This coincides with an infant’s increasing tendency to approach familiar caregivers and to be wary of unfamiliar adults. After this critical period, it is still possible for a first attachment relationship to develop, albeit with greater difficulty (Salkind, 2005).

This has brought into question, in a similar vein to language development, whether there is actually a critical development period for infant-caregiver attachment.

Sources debating this issue typically include cases of infants who did not experience consistent caregiving due to being raised in institutions prior to adoption (Salkind, 2005).

Early research into the critical period of attachment, published in the 1940s, reports consistently that children raised in orphanages subsequently showed unusual and maladaptive patterns of social behavior, difficulty in forming close relationships, and being indiscriminately friendly toward unfamiliar adults (Salkind, 2005).

Later, research from the the 1990s indicated that adoptees were actually still able to form attachment relationships after the first year of life and also made developmental progress following adoption.

Nonetheless, these children had an overall increased risk of insecure or maladaptive attachment relationships with their adoptive parents. This evidence supports the notion of a sensitive period, but not a critical period, in the development of first attachment relationships (Salkind, 2005).

Mechanisms for Critical Periods

Both genetics and sensory experiences from outside the body shape the brain as it develops (Knudsen, 2004). However, the developmental stage that an organism is in significantly impacts how much the brain can change based on these experiences.

In scientific terms, the brain’s plasticity changes over the course of a lifespan. The brain is very plastic in the early stages of life, before many key connections take root, but less so later.

This is why researchers have shown that early experience is crucial for the development of, say, language and musical abilities and these skills are more challenging to take up in adulthood (Skoe and Kraus, 2013; White et al., 2013; Hartshorne et al., 2018).

As brains mature, the connections in them become more fixed. The brain’s transitions from a more plastic to a more fixed state advantageously allows it to retain new and complex processes, such as perceptual, motor, and cognitive functions (Piaget, 1962).

Children’s gestures, for example, pride and predict how they will acquire oral language skills (Colonnesi et al., 2010), which in turn are important for developing executive functions (Marcovitch and Zelazo, 2009).

However, this formation of stable connections in the brain can limit how the brain’s neural circuitry can be revised in the future. For example, if a young organism has abnormal sensory experiences during the critical period - such as auditory or visual deprivation - the brain may not wire itself in a way that processes future sensory inputs properly (Gallagher et al., 2020).

One illustration is this is the timing of cochlear implants - a prosthesis that restores hearing in some deaf people. Children who receive cochlear implants before two years of age are more likely to benefit from it than those who are implanted later in life (Kral and Eggermont, 2007; Gallagher et al., 2020).

Similarly, the visual deprivation caused by cataracts in infants can cause similar consequences. When cataracts are removed during early infancy, individuals can develop relatively normal vision; however, when the cataracts are not removed until adulthood, this results in substantially poorer vision (Martins Rosa et al., 2013).

After the critical period closes, abnormal sensory experiences have a less drastic effect on the brain and leads to - barring direct damage to the central nervous system - reversible changes (Gallagher et al., 2020). Much of what scientists know about critical periods derives from animal studies, as these allow researchers greater control over the variables that they are testing.

This research has found that different sensory systems, such as vision, auditory processing, and spatial hearing have different critical periods (Gallagher et al., 2020).

The brain regulates when critical periods open and close through regulating how much the brain’s synapses take up neurotransmitters, which are chemical substances that affect the transmissions of electrical signals between neurons.

In particular, over time, synapses decrease their uptake of gamma-aminobutyric acid, better known as GABA. At the beginning of the critical period, outside sources become more effective at influencing changes and growth in the brain.

Meanwhile, as the inhibitory circuits of the brain mature, the mature brain becomes less sensitive to sensory experiences (Gallagher et al., 2020).

Critical Periods vs Sensitive Periods

Critical periods are similar to sensitive periods, and scholars have at times used them interchangeably. However, they describe distinct but overlapping developmental processes. A sensitive period is a developmental stage where sensory experiences have a greater impact on behavioral and brain development than usual; however, this influence is not exclusive to this time period (Knudsen, 2004; Gallagher, 2020). These sensitive periods are important for skills such as learning a language or instrument. In contrast, A critical period is a special type of sensitive period - a window where sensory experience is necessary to shape the neural circuits involved in basic sensory processing, and when this window opens and closes is well-defined (Gallagher, 2020). Researchers also refer to sensitive periods as weak critical periods. Some examples of strong critical periods include the development of vision and hearing, while weak critical periods include phenome tuning - how children learn how to organize sounds in a language, grammar processing, vocabulary acquisition, musical training, and sport training (Gallagher et al., 2020).

The Critical Period Hypothesis

One of the most notable applications of the concept of a critical period is in linguistics. Scholars usually trace the origins of the debate around age in language acquisition to Penfield and Robert’s (2014) book Speech and Brain Mechanisms.

In the 1950s and 1960s Penfield was a staunch advocate of early immersion education (Kroll and De Groot, 2009). Nonetheless, it was Lenneberg in his book Biological Foundations of Language who coined the term critical period (1967) in describing language period.

Lennenberg (1967) described a critical period as a period of automatic acquisition from mere exposure” that “seems to disappear after this age.” Scovel (1969) later summarized and narrowed Penfield’s and Lenneberg’s view on the critical period hypothesis into three main claims:

  1. Adult native speakers can identify non-natives by their accent immediately and accurately.
  2. The loss of brain plasticity at about the age of puberty accounts for the emergence of foreign accents./li>
  3. The critical period hypothesis only holds for speech (whether or not someone has a native accent) and does not affect other areas of linguistic competence.

Linguists have since attempted to find evidence for whether or not scientific evidence actually supports the critical period hypothesis, if there is a critical period for acquiring accentless speech, for “morphosyntactic” competence, and if these are true, how age-related differences can be explained on the neurological level (Scovel, 2000).

The critical period hypothesis applies to both first and second language learning. Until recently, research around the critical period’s role in first language acquisition revolved around findings about so-called “feral” children who had failed to acquire language at an older age after having been deprived of normal input during the critical period.

However, these case studies did not account for the extent to which social deprivation, and possibly food deprivation or sensory deprivation, may have confounded with language input deprivation (Kroll and De Groot, 2009).

More recently, researchers have focused more systematically on deaf children born to hearing parents who are therefore deprived of language input until at least elementary school.

These studies have found the effects of lack of language input without extreme social deprivation: the older the age of exposure to sign language is, the worse its ultimate attainment (Emmorey, Bellugi, Friederici, and Horn, 1995; Kroll and De Groot, 2009).

However, Kroll and De Groot argue that the critical period hypothesis does not apply to rate of acquisition of language. Adults and adolescents can learn languages at the same rate or even faster than children in their initial stage of acquisition (Slavoff and Johnson, 1995).

However, adults tend to have a more limited ultimate attainment of language ability (Kroll and De Groot, 2009). There has been a long lineage of empirical findings around age of acquisition. The most fundamental of this research comes from a series of studies since the late 1970s documenting a negative correlation between age of acquisition and ultimate language mastery (Kroll and De Grott, 2009).

Nonetheless, different periods correspond to sensitivity to different aspects of language. For example, shortly after birth, infants can perceive and discriminate speech sounds from any language, including ones they have not been exposed to (Eimas et al., 1971; Gallagher et al., 2020).

Around six months of age, exposure to the primary language in the infant’s environment guides phonetic representations of language, and subsequently the neural representations of speech sounds of the native language, while weakening those of unused sounds (McClelland et al., 1999; Gallagher et al., 2020).

Vocabulary learning experiences rapid growth at about 18 months of age (Kuhl, 2010).

Critical Evaluation

More than any other area of applied linguistics, the critical period hypothesis has impacted how teachers teach languages. Consequently, researchers have critiqued how important the critical period is to language learning.

For example, several studies in early language acquisition research showed that children were not necessarily superior to older learners in acquiring a second language even in the area of pronunciation (Olson and Samuels, 1973; Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978; Scovel, 2000).

In fact, the majority of researchers at the time appeared to be skeptical about the existence of a critical period, with some explicitly denying its existence.

Counter to one of the primary tenets of Scovel’s (1969) critical period hypothesis, there have been several cases of people who have acquired a second language in adulthood speaking with native accents.

For example, Moyer’s study of highly-proficient English-speaking learners of German suggested that at least one of the participants was judged to have native-like pronunciation in his second language (1999), and several participants in Bongaerts (1999) study of highly proficient Dutch speakers of French spoke with accents judged to be native (Scovel, 2000).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Nov 18). Critical Period In Brain Development and Childhood Learning. Simply Psychology.


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