Sesame Street Helps Researchers See How The Brain Learns

Brain scans of children and adults watching Sesame Street show how brains change when they are leaning math and reading, researchers say.

Typically, researchers study subjects in a brain scanner with simple stimuli like a number against a black background. This shows them what regions of the brain respond. But it isn’t clear how applicable these neural patterns work in the real world. A new study conducted by Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscientist a the University of Rochester in New York and her colleagues used functional magnetic imagining, or fMRI, to look at the brains of children while they watched Sesame Street. This allowed the researchers to look at how to the brain changed as it learns reading and math skills in a normal educational activity.

According to Time Halth and Family, Canton said:

“Everyone would prefer to use the real world as the stimulus because that’s really the goal: to understand what brain regions are important when children are learning in the real classroom and not with isolated stimuli on a black background, because that’s not really how they learn.”

The study was published in the journal PLoS Biology. The authors of the study wrote, “It is not currently possible to measure the real-world thought process that a child has while observing an actual school session. However, if it could be done, children’s neural processes would presumably be predictive of what they know.”

One of the goals of the study is to discover more about how children learn. Greater understanding may help diagnose and treat learning difficulties. Canton told Live Science that “when children fail to lean mathematics well, there could be a number of different reasons for that — it could be that they have weak concepts of numbers, that they have poor memory, that they have limited attention.” She added brain tests could help determine the precise reason why a child may have a math impairment, “because different patterns of brain activity likely accompany each of those different cognitive impairments.”

The researchers studied 27 children, between the ages of four and 11, as well as 20 adults. All were placed in the fMRI machine while they watched 20 minutes of Sesame Street. The clips showed numbers, shapes, and language. After the the show the children took standardized tests to assess their math and verbal skills. The researchers then used the scans to create a neural map of their children’s though processes and compared those to the adult subjects.

They discovered that the brains of children who worked similarly to the brains of the adults got higher scores on their standardized test. They conclude that the brain develops along a predictable pattern as children age. The brain dedicated certain regions and networks to specific tasks like reading or problem solving. The researchers were also able to see where verbal and math skills develop.

Canton said that there need to be further studies to pinpoint what areas of the brain might be linked if a child has difficulty learning math or verbal skills. She added future research could look whether educational television shows are better than non-educational shows at eliciting math and verbal related brain activity.