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The Brain Series: The Hippocampus

Welcome back to the brain series, where we explore the intricate workings of different sections of the brain, understand their roles, their development in children, and how mindfulness can enhance their functions. In our last post, we delved into the amygdala, the brain's emotional core. Today we will focus on the hippocampus, a critical structure for memory and learning. By learning about the roles of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the visual cortex, we can develop strategies to regulate our emotional responses and thus improve mental health.



What is the hippocampus?


The hippocampus is an area of the brain with a big job in helping your memory and learning. Just like the amygdala, covered last week, it is part of the limbic system - a group of brain structures that regulate your emotions, smells, and memories. A small, curved formation located in the brain’s temporal lobe, the hippocampus is crucial in the establishment of information, from short-term memory to long term memory and spatial navigation. The name derives from the Greek for seahorse due to its distinctive shape.


Functions of the hippocampus


  • The hippocampus is where new memories are formed. It helps to encode information and then transfer it to other parts of the brain for long-term storage. This includes verbal memory - remembering the right words to say.


  • Working with the amygdala, the hippocampus tags emotions to memories which in turn aids emotional learning.


  • It helps to navigate our environment by creating cognitive maps, allowing us to remember locations and directions.


Hippocampus and children’s mental health


In children, the hippocampus is crucial for learning and memory growth, showing active development throughout childhood. As they age, children are constantly absorbing new information and experiences and the hippocampus helps retain these memories, a function that is vital for educational growth and emotional development. A well-functioning hippocampus is important for learning new concepts and retaining information. Children’s brains are especially good at forming memories through the hippocampus which means negative or positive experiences can have a significant impact on their development.


During childhood, the hippocampus undergoes substantial development, which influences how children perceive and respond to stressors. A well-functioning hippocampus enables children to manage emotions effectively and learn from experiences. However, stress and trauma can negatively impact this development. Children with a disturbed hippocampus may struggle with emotional regulation, memory difficulties and heightened fear and anxiety responses. Encouraging mindfulness can help these effects and contribute to improved wellbeing.


How does mindfulness for children help the hippocampus?


Stress reduction


Stress is known to have a detrimental effect on memory. The body produces cortisol when under stress which can impair memory and shrink the hippocampus, negatively impacting a child’s ability to learn and retain information. Mindfulness can reduce cortisol levels, allowing the hippocampus to operate more effectively, enhancing memory and learning in children.


Improvements in working memory


The working memory is key for your child to be able to hold and manipulate information over short periods. It is crucial for children’s development, responsible for tasks like problem-solving, comprehension and learning. Mindfulness can improve the working memory by increasing the hippocampus’ density and minimising distraction from competing thoughts and memories by focusing on the present moment. Mindfulness exercises that focus on mindful listening, concentrating on specific sounds, can strengthen working memory by training their brains to maintain and manipulate information more effectively.


Enhancing emotional regulation


The hippocampus works with other brain areas to regulate emotions, connecting memories to emotions, generating emotional responses. It works with the amygdala to assign emotion to an experience, for instance: the amygdala will signal the hippocampus to store memories of a fearful event to avoid a similar threat in the future. Mindfulness teaches children to recognise these emotions and understand memories stored in the hippocampus without judgement. This increased awareness helps children develop better emotional control.


How should we explain the hippocampus to our children?


Continuing on from previous blogs in our Brain series, it is incredibly important to teach our children about the functions of the brain to help them better understand themselves. It is an amazing way for them to identify with who they are and accept that all brains are unique in their own way - especially when it comes to children with neurodivergent challenges, including ADHD & ASD.


A good way to explain the hippocampus to your children could be to describe it as a librarian. This librarian helps you store and find your memories, as opposed to books. When you experience something new, like learning a new game, the librarian helps you save that memory in your brain. Later on, when you need to remember how to play the game, the librarian will help you find that memory. Like books, these memories will be happy or sad and linked to emotions.


Tune in next week when we’ll be discussing the Visual Cortex and it’s role in helping is connect to the present moment through our five senses.

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