In a new study published in the Jan. 3 journal PLoS Biology, researchers found that looking at how children’s brains responded as they watched Sesame Street videos provided insight into how kids develop such intellectual abilities as reading and math.
The study, say scientists, may offer a clearer picture of why children experience difficulty with school work and help to diagnose and treat learning disabilities. The investigation is unique because it focuses on people’s responses to something from real life such as the normal activity of watching TV.
Responding to real-life experiences
Cognitive scientists have used brain imaging to understand how people process thought as they experience real-life experiences before. “But,” said Jessica Cantlon, PhD, lead study author and assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, ”this is the first study to use the method as a tool for understanding development.”
“Psychologists have behavioral tests for trying to get to the bottom of learning impairments, but these new imaging studies provide a totally independent source of information about children’s learning based on what’s happening in the brain,” Cantlon told Science Daily.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans — a type of brain imaging that involves no risks, injections, surgery or exposure to radiation — to record the responses of 27 children between the ages of 4 and 11, and 20 adults as they watched the same 20-minute Sesame Street video. The scans segmented the brain into three-dimensional grids that allowed investigators to create “neural maps” of each group’s thought processes.
Results showed that children whose neural maps more closely resembled the maps of the adults in the study scored higher on standardized verbal and math tests. In addition, the study confirmed where in the brain developing learning abilities are located. For verbal tasks, adult-like neural patterns in the Broca’s area predicted higher verbal test scores in children. Better scores in math were associated with more mature patterns in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) region of the brain.
In a response to the study, Timothy Brown, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, told HealthDay, “In one sense, the study is a simple demonstration of something we probably already knew – that children who are better at [focusing] in general are better at acquiring learned academic skills because doing so requires attention, concentration and mental effort.”
“However,” Brown added, “the study is also novel in its use of more fluid, naturalistic ‘real-word’ visual stimuli, which is innovative and important for advancing research on human brain development.”
It is important to note that the study does not advocate TV watching, nor does it not endorse Sesame Street. What it does show, said Cantlon, is that “neural patterns during an everyday activity like watching television are related to a person’s intellectual maturity.”
“It’s not the case that if you put a child in front of an educational TV program that nothing is happening – that the brain sort of zones out. Instead, what we see is that the patterns of neural activity that children are showing are meaningful and related to their intellectual abilities,” said Cantlon.