My daughter, who isn’t quite two-years old yet, loves Sesame Street more than any other non-breathing thing on Earth. Although my wife, both of my daughter’s grandmothers and I use more interactive ways of teaching her, she gets an awful lot out of the show, calling the characters out by name even if just their voice is heard, as well as knowing her alphabet and most of her numbers up to 20, among other things. While it’s surprising to me that Elmo and the gang have had such an effect on her at this young age, the superior educational value of the show has been well defined over the years.
For a study in the journal PLoS Biology, Jessica Cantlon, assistant professor in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, and her former research assistant Rosa Li, used fMRI machines to map the neural imaging of 20 adults, as well as 27 children between the ages of 4 and 11, while they watched a 20-minute video of Sesame Street segments. After the video, the children then completed standardized math and verbal IQ tests. The researchers created “neural maps” of the thought patterns of the children and adults, culled from each participants 609 separate scans, taken once every two seconds.
Perhaps non-surprisingly, the children whose brain maps bore stronger resemblances to their adult counterparts scored higher in the math and verbal IQ tests. This fuels the theory that the brain’s neural structure, similar to our bones and muscles, follow predictable pathways on the way to becoming an adult. As well, the fMRI mapping confirmed the areas of the brain where these developments happen.
The researchers chose watching TV because it represents an everyday activity that presents a more even indication on brain development than would the simpler and shorter tasks usually taken during fMRI scanning. They go on to say regular learning environments in schools are rich in complexity along with the lessons, just like Sesame Street is. To prove themselves right, they scanned the children while they performed typical fMRI exercises like matching shapes and faces. The results were clear in showing a lack of predictive causality between the simpler tasks and their IQ test scores.
This isn’t to prove that sitting down and watching TV all day will make a child a genius, but it definitely proves that they aren’t going brain dead while they do it. Cantlon says, “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.”
Where TV and intelligence is concerned, I usually just have to ask people if they like Breaking Bad in order to reach my opinion. And for your viewing pleasure, here is Gus Fring in a series of Sesame Street segments. “You got marmalade?” “Yeah, we got marmalade.”