Experience exerts a profound influence on the brain and, therefore, on behavior. When the effect of experience on the brain is particularly strong during a limited period in development, this period is referred to as a sensitive period. Such periods allow experience to instruct neural circuits to process or represent information in a way that is adaptive for the individual. When experience provides information that is essential for normal development and alters performance permanently, such sensitive periods are referred to as critical periods.
Although sensitive periods are reflected in behavior, they are actually a property of neural circuits. Mechanisms of plasticity at the circuit level are discussed that have been shown to operate during sensitive periods. A hypothesis is proposed that experience during a sensitive period modifies the architecture of a circuit in fundamental ways, causing certain patterns of connectivity to become highly stable and, therefore, energetically preferred. Plasticity that occurs beyond the end of a sensitive period, which is substantial in many circuits, alters connectivity patterns within the architectural constraints established during the sensitive period. Preferences in a circuit that result from experience during sensitive periods are illustrated graphically as changes in a “stability landscape,” a metaphor that represents the relative contributions of genetic and experiential influences in shaping the information processing capabilities of a neural circuit. By understanding sensitive periods at the circuit level, as well as understanding the relationship between circuit properties and behavior, we gain a deeper insight into the critical role that experience plays in shaping the development of the brain and behavior.