What Happens Inside Kids’ Brains As They Watch “Sesame Street”

What happens in a child’s brain when they watch “Sesame Street”? A new study by scientists at University of Rochester aimed to find out, reports the website PsychCentral:

“For the investigation, 27 children between the ages of 4 and 11, and 20 adults watched the same 20-minute ‘Sesame Street’ video. The children then took standardized IQ tests for math and verbal ability.

To capture the neural response to the show, the researchers used an fMRI machine to scan the brains of participants as they watched Big Bird, the Count, Elmo and other stars of the educational series. Using statistical algorithms, the researchers then created ‘neural maps’ of the thought processes for the children and the adults and compared the groups.

The result? Children whose neural maps more closely resembled the neural maps of adults scored higher on standardized math and verbal tests. In other words, the brain’s neural structure, like other parts of the body, develops along predictable pathways as we mature.

The study also confirmed where in the brain these developing abilities are located. For verbal tasks, adult-like neural patterns in the Broca area, which is involved in speech and language, predicted higher verbal test scores in children. For math, better scores were linked to more mature patterns in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), a region of the brain known to be involved in the processing of numbers.

Although the study does not advocate TV watching, it does show that ‘neural patterns during an everyday activity like watching television are related to a person’s intellectual maturity,’ said lead author Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive scientist at the University of Rochester.

‘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 just 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.’” (Read more here.)

One takeaway from this study is that—despite the many variations and differences among people—our brains are more alike than different, and the brain, “like other parts of the body, develops along predictable pathways as we mature.” Important to remember in a world that is obsessed with “learning styles” and “personalized learning.”

One Response to “What Happens Inside Kids’ Brains As They Watch “Sesame Street””

  1. This is an interesting article but I have a quibble with your takeaway. It shouldn’t be too surprising that our brains are wired similarly to manage standardized tasks. After all, those standardized tests are written to test standardized knowledge theoretically accounting for cultural, socio-economic and other differences. It would be far more revealing if the research showed that the human brain can handle these tasks using a variety of different “wiring” approaches. Or if the research showed that children tackle math concepts using a different part of the brain than adults. I don’t believe this really challenges the core concepts embodied by multi sensory, learning styles, and personalized learning. Those areas do have room for critique and improvement but I don’t think this research supports that challenge. The real point of “personalization” is that different students have different motivators, different strengths, different experiences. The goal of a football coach is to win games (score points, prevent the other team from scoring more). Some players are designated for offense, some defense. Some players have speed. Some players have strength. Some are motivated by a “drill sergeant” approach. Some are motivated by praise. A good coach accommodates those differences. Physiologically it is twitching muscles, hand-eye coordination, stamina, reaction time, etc. The coach that only recruits or drafts players based on a physiological profile ends up with losing record.
    I took two main things from the article: “Experts hope that a better understanding of brain development may help scientists determine the cause of learning disabilities.” If we can show that success on standardized tests can be linked to “standard” wiring approaches. Can we show that “non-standard” wiring approaches are tied to lower test scores. That wouldn’t be surprising but it would indicate a potentially useful method for diagnosing learning differences.
    The second takeaway is really an interest in seeing a longitudinal study. Can we track this finding over time, “Children whose neural maps more closely resembled the neural maps of adults scored higher on standardized math and verbal tests.” Does this finding hold long term? Do those students continue to succeed or is it a temporary head start which might indicate that the standardized tests are not measuring ability at a common developmental point but only measuring those who are developmentally ahead of their peers.

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