January 30, 2013

By Jessica F. Cantlon

Using Sesame Street to Study Brain Development

Jessica F. Cantlon is Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

I am never quite sure what my daughter is thinking about as we interact.  I’ll watch my child’s reactions as I read her a book and I wonder whether she is thinking about the words that I am saying, the printed words on the page, the pictures I’m gesturing toward, or something else entirely.  And, when I see her completely mesmerized by something we’re watching on television,  I often wonder what aspects of the program she’s absorbing. One way to get ‘inside’ the minds of young children, especially children too young to articulate their thoughts in words, are studies that measure children’s neural activity while they engage in everyday activities like listening to stories or watching educational television. Such studies can not only help us understand which pieces of information children are processing in everyday situations, but how their brain is filtering, reacting to and registering the content to which they are exposed.

In a recent report published in the journal PLoS Biology, we demonstrated that the patterns of neural activity that children exhibit while watching Sesame Street predict their performance on school tests.  Children and adults all watched the same Sesame Street video as we measured their neural activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We then examined the neural activity over the length of the video for children and adults. We found that the degree to which children showed adult-like brain responses in certain brain regions predicted their math and verbal knowledge levels.  Our results thus indicate that Sesame Street is effective at eliciting patterns of neural activity that are related to children’s school performance.

On the basis of a long line of previous research, we knew that a region of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus supports mathematical reasoning in adults, while a region called the inferior frontal gyrus (or “Broca’s area”) is critical for verbal abilities. In our study, we found that children with more mature neural activity in the intraparietal sulcus had higher math test scores whereas children with more mature neural activity in Broca’s area had higher verbal test scores.  Moreover, in the intraparietal sulcus, a mathematics-related brain region, children showed stronger neural activity during the Sesame Street scenes that were related to counting and numbers compared to other topics.  This tells us that children’s brains were filtering the mathematics-related content of the Sesame Street video into a region of the brain that processes mathematics and suggests that children are in fact thinking about numbers when they encounter them in an episode of Sesame Street.

In designing the study, we chose Sesame Street because it is mainstream: all of the students and professors in our research group had watched Sesame Street as children, or were otherwise familiar with the program.  In pilot MRI testing with children, we found that children were consistently engaged and entertained by the Sesame Street video.  A serious challenge in our developmental neuroimaging research is that young children often become bored and restless after a few minutes in the MRI scanner, which makes it difficult to get accurate brain images.  We did not find that to be the case when we showed them Sesame Street.  Thus, the effectiveness of Sesame Street in this research study was quite clear.

Our results are exciting because they provide the first evidence that children’s brains are doing important work while the children are left to do something that they might do naturally on their own: watch Sesame Street.  This gives us a window into what children’s minds are doing organically, in the real world – something which parents are often curious about, and something that, if understood, could unlock important secrets of children’s cognitive and neural functioning.

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