Sesame Street on the Brain

Child brain scans during educational television reveals information about learning

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) What would you see if you could "see" a child learning? What would the brain look like? That's what a group of researchers wanted to find out. So they used Sesame Street.

The researchers compared the brains of children and adults while watching the educational show. They were able to see how the brain was operating as children learned new things during the show.

The researchers found that the "maps" created in the children's brains while watching the show predicted how well they did on reading and math tests. The researchers hope the work might allow future identification of learning problems using these brain scans.

"If kids watch TV, choose educational shows."

The study, led by Jessica F. Cantlon, PhD, from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to look at the participants' brains.

An fMRI uses magnetic scans to divide the brain into a three-dimensional grid, and then it measures how strong brain signals are in all the tiny parts of the grid. Then researchers use these signals to "map" the brain's activity during the scan.

Twenty adults and 27 children, aged 4 to 11, watched the same 20-minute video clip from Sesame Street, which included scenes on numbers, words, shapes and other educational lessons.

After the viewing, the children took standard IQ tests that measured their math and verbal skills.

The researchers found that the children's whose "brain maps" matched the adults more closely while watching the show were more likely to score better on the IQ tests.

However, when the researchers scanned the children's brains while they did a simple task of matching faces, numbers, words or shapes, the patterns seen in their brain did not provide any information that related to how well they did on the IQ tests.

This told the scientists that "natural" real-life learning, such as that on Sesame Street, is important for understanding the brain's mapping rather than the images created when children did made-up tasks that were similar to learning.

"Our data show that children’s neural responses while watching complex real-world stimuli predict their cognitive abilities in a content-specific manner," the researchers wrote.

That means the parts of the brain that were active while they watched the program gave the scientists information that linked to how well they performed on the different parts of the IQ test.

The children who had more activity in one area of the brain called the "Broca area" did better on the verbal skills on the IQ test. The Broca area is related to speech and language.

The area that was linked to better math scores is called the intraparietal sulcus. It is the part of the brain that helps process numbers.

The researchers hope that learning more about the brains of children while they are learning might help with future learning disability identification.

"Psychologists have behavioral tests for trying to get 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," Dr. Cantlon said.

Of course, another thing the researchers learned is that Sesame Street really is educational. That means other television programs might be as well.

"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," Dr. Cantlon said. "Instead, what we see is that the patterns of neural activity that children are showing are meaningful and related to their intellectual abilities."

That does not mean that children should spend a great deal of time in front of the television. But when they are watching television, watching educational shows like Sesame Street may be a good option.

The fMRI scans that were done on the children do not involve radiation and other risks are minimal, such as a malfunction from medical devices from the magnet only if a person already has a medical device inside their body.

Or if a person is injected with a "contrast material" to help the scientists see the brain better, rare allergic reactions are possible.

The study was published January 3 in the journal PLOS Biology. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and a James S. McDonnell Foundation grant.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 3, 2013
Last Updated:
January 4, 2013