The development of the modern brain

To better grasp the potent hold of the emotions on the thinking mind – and why feeling and reason are so readily at war – consider how the brain evolved. Human brains, with their three pounds or so of cells and neural juices, are about triple the size of those in our nearest cousins in evolution, the nonhuman primates. Over millions of years of evolution, the brain has grown from the bottom up, with its higher centres developing as elaborations of lower, more ancient parts. (The growth of the brain in the human embryo roughly retraces this evolutionary course.)

Goleman, D. (2004)

Goleman goes on to explain the different parts of the brain, starting with the most primitive “reptilian” brain. As humans we share a similar brainstem structure with most species that have a complex nervous system. The brainstem surrounds the top of the spinal cord and acts as a regulator for the most basic life functions requires to survive; breathing, organ metabolism, reactions and movements.

From this brainstem, the emotional centre of the brain developed over millions of years. The neocortex or “thinking brain” grew from this, providing the structure that fills our neurocraniums today.


For further reading on the topic of emotional intelligence or the physiology of the brain within the early years, consider the following from my current reading list:

  • Butterworth, G. and Harris, M. (1994) Principles of Developmental Psychology. East Sussex: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.
  • Gerhardt, S. (2010) Why Love Matters; How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. East Sussex: Routledge.
  • Goleman, D. (2004) Emotional Intelligence. Working with Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Lewis, T., Amini, F. and Lannon, R. (2000) A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.
  • Sunderland, M. (2006) The Science of Parenting. London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • Mayer, J.D. and Salovey, P. “The intelligence of emotional intelligence” (1993). Intelligence, 17:4. pp 433-442.
  • Matthews, G. Zeidner, M. and Roberts, R. (2004) Emotional Intelligence: Science and Myth. USA: MIT Press.

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About Kate Oakley
Senior Early Years Practitioner from the East of England.

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