Being an only child can fundamentally change the structure of your brain. Scientists have discovered that being an only child doesn’t just lead to behavioral differences that can set kids apart from those with siblings—it actually affects a child’s brain development, too.
For a 2016 study published in Brain Imaging and Behavior, researchers recruited 303 participants, a mix of only children and people with siblings.
Studies have focused on the difference in behaviors, cognitive function, and personality traits between an only child and those with siblings. After all, it’s common sense that those without siblings don’t have to share their parents’ attention, and so likely get more encouragement, but miss out on the early experience of sharing, or competing.
The Southwest University in Chongqing, China wanted to find out if the difference in behaviors had a neural basis.
The researchers studied 250 university students, a somewhat small sample, around half of which were only children. They scanned their brains while also testing their personality, creativity, and intelligence using already established methods.
The only child who performed higher on creativity showed a higher volume of gray matter in the parietal lobe, a part of the brain associated with mental flexibility and imagination. The scans of those only children who showed less agreeable traits showed less gray matter in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain known to be involved in thinking about the self in relation to others.
Corroborating previous findings, the tests showed that the only children outperformed those with siblings on creativity, but consistently scored lower on agreeable personality traits. The scans demonstrated that the parts of the brain associated with the development of these were indeed structurally different in the two.
The University also examined if different family environments actually affected children’s brain structural development. The researchers claimed that different family environments do affect children’s structural brain development and the kind of upbringing they have shaped, the kind of people they’ll become on a neurological basis.
They point out that other studies have already shown that only children tend to exhibit more positive developmental outcomes, such as higher intelligence and creativity, often demonstrated in achievements at school.
However, the sole attention of parents, and grandparents to an extent can result in what they call “undesirable” personality traits: dependence, selfishness, and social ineptitude. Only-children misses out on early opportunities to develop and practice social skills, emotional support, and empathy.
This isn’t to say that the only child is born with altered brains. Especially when it comes to creativity, it’s all in their upbringing. Researchers suggest that parents of only-children may spend more time and effort on them, therefore setting more concrete expectations and giving them more opportunities than they would otherwise.
As for the low agreeableness scores, that extra time with parents could be a drawback. As Science Alert explains, “Only children’s lesser agreeableness could result from excessive attention from family members, less exposure to external social groups, and more focus on solitary activities while growing up.”
Every experience they have in their life shapes their brain. So, it completely makes sense that two groups with different upbringings would show differences in their brain structure. Only children aren’t just raised differently—their brains are different, too.
Being an only child really has its own ups and downs in life. There are times where they wish they had a sibling to rely on and ask for help with homework or be the one where a younger sibling can ask them for help or give them advice.
Being an only child, they’re aware of their bad reputation. Spoiled, selfish, and antisocial are just a few adjectives usually associated with “only.” People mostly think that being an only child in a family must be easy, getting all the love and attention. But in fact, you have to go through all the hardships.
As an only child, they may also face an immense pressure put on them by their parents; for example, to keep the family name going on, or to do well in your academics.
In conclusion, being an only child has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the fact cannot be denied that it could change the brains development.
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