Is Big Bird really teaching kids?

Is television really the brain rot your parents used to tell you it was? Well, the jury is still out about that, but one thing University of Rochester neurology researchers seem to have discovered is that the brain activity of a kid watching Big Bird generally mirrors that of adults. That is: the parts of the brain which are active in an adult watching Sesame Street and those of a child are similar, and also map to specific cognitive aptitudes in both groups.

The study conducted on 27 children and 20 adults used fMRI imaging to watch the brain activity of test subjects as they watched Sesame Street. The purpose of the experiment was to see if doing more natural tasks such as watching television would reveal more clues as to how the brain functions. Previous tests using simplified tasks failed to predict which parts of the brain governed which types of cognitive ability. However, when subjects watched The Bird:

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.

On the issue of whether watching television actually teaches children, well, the researchers are quick to point out that they’re not actually endorsing television as an educational tool. Heaven forfend. But the findings of the study do seem at minimum to suggest that the correct neural pathways are getting teased by the content of Sesame Street episodes.

Whether this is because kids are learning from television or simply responding to information they already understand based on some other means of learning is not clear. It is also entirely possible that, just as the simple task-based studies failed to reveal correlations, the current set of studies might be revealing genuine correlations that are not actually tied to the same cause.

But knowing that a correlation does exist opens up entirely new neurological pathways for the continued research of learning and learning disability. With more research and corroborating evidence from other disciplines, this could be a whole new suite of tools to get the best out of kids.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

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