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The processes by which the brain develops are different in adulthood than in childhood.

Early in Life?

The key process in childhood that shapes the brain is pruning. Synapses develop extremely rapidly. Synapse formation is a biologically-driven process, not necessarily linked to the infant's or child's environment or experiences. Researchers describe the process as "synaptic overproduction" because the brain produces many more connections than it needs. The pruning process refines these connections based on experience.

Example. A newborn infant's brain has connections that allow it to hear sounds from all languages in the world. During the first months of life, the infant hears a particular language (or languages) spoken around her. Based on the sounds the infant hears, the brain strengthens connections for the sounds of those languages and eliminates the connections for sounds that are not distinguished in those languages. So, infants raised in Japanese-speaking homes eventually lose the ability to distinguish between the English "r" and "l" sounds because those sounds are not different in Japanese.

Later in Life?

The processes of pruning and myelination that shape the brain's basic wiring are essentially completed. The brain continues to develop synaptic connections, however, there are two major differences:

The rate of synapse formation is much slower than in early childhood.
Synapses are formed based on specific events or experiences in the adult's life.
Example. An adult who sees a catastrophic event such as the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City will form specific connections in the brain that allow him to remember what he was doing when he first saw or heard about the attacks.

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