Sesame Street has long been a beloved program for children and parents alike. Now, researchers are harnessing the program in order to study how brains are shaped.
Traditional studies involve presenting the brain with simple stimuli, like a white number on a black background, in order to see which portions of the brain respond. However, researchers have realized that this system may be a bit too simple to capture all of the different processes of the brain while it is learning since, in the real world, we learn through a variety of stimuli - like watching TV or discussing a topic with our families. That is why Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive scientist from the University of Rochester, and Rosa Li, now a graduate student at Duke University, used the learning show in an attempt to investigate more closely how people learn.
"[This] is the first study to use the method as a tool for understanding development," Cantlon explains in a statement.
The study meant that the researchers collected brain scans from functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI) from 47 participants: 27 children aged 4 to 11, and 20 adults. All watched a 20-minute video from Sesame Street, containing a variety of clips focused on numbers, words, shapes and other subjects. After viewing the videotape, the children took an IQ test that focused on verbal and math ability.
Researchers found that children whose brains more closely resembled those of adults while watching the video performed better on the IQ tests. The brain images also indicated where those skills tended to develop. Children whose neural patterns resembled adults in the Broca's area of the brain, associated with speech and language, performed better on the verbal section; children whose neural patterns resembled adults in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) region, which is involved with numerical processing, performed better in math.
The findings may seem obvious. After all, why wouldn't a child with a mind like an adult perform better on tests? "It's a step in the direction toward understanding what typical brain development looks like and predicting what might be going wrong," Cantlon said to Health Day. Ultimately, brain scans could be used to examine what exactly is wrong in a child with a learning disability - do they have a problem with the concept of numbers or is it their working memory that has gone awry?
The study was published in PLoS Biology.