Sometimes scientific research leads to spectacular discoveries and then there is intense debate, instant fame and (much later) Nobel prizes all round. Much more often science proceeds by a gradual and pains-taking accretion of facts, and that is probably true of the question as to whether watching television (and electronic media generally) is bad for children. This topic has been mentioned several times down the years in Research Watch and Dr. Aric Sigman (who is perhaps the best known advocate of limiting TV) has had articles printed in Montessori International. The latest piece of research is a first however. A team of scientists from Tohoku University in Japan (Takeuchi, 2013) studied 276 children aged 5 to 18 who watched from none to 4 hours of TV a day. They were studies over a period of time and discovered that the amount of TV watched correlated with a anatomical changes in parts of the brain called the frontopolar and medial prefrontal areas. These are known to be linked to intellectual abilities. The particular feature was that there was a greater amount of ‘grey matter’. You might think this is a good thing, as the grey matter is where the thinking goes on, but the brain goes through a phase of synaptic pruning during development – in effect becoming specialised. If this is inhibited (by even only 4 hours a day – and remember that some children are glued to the ‘box’ for 10+ hours a day!) then regressive traits, like reduced verbal competence and aggression, may be retained. This study does not prove it is TV that causes the problem, it could be the lack of exercise perhaps. However, it is the first study to clearly show anatomical changes in the developing brain associated with electronic media.
Not everyone is convinced by these arguments. Just one example is the development of a version of a programming language, called ScratchJr, designed for children of 5 (or less) to 7 years of age. Led by Professor Marina Bers at Tufts University and Professor Mitch Resnick at MIT and funded by the National Science Foundation, the development raises the spectre of children learning to programme computers before they can read. The authors (DevTech, 2013) describe this as developmentally appropriate for kindergartners. Technology is moving so fast: it is difficult to know what to make of this sort of work.
However, all sorts of research on the brain proceeds apace. Everyone now is agreed that babies have much greater mental powers than used to be thought. The latest research, by a pan-European team (Kouider, 2013) has now suggested that babies as young as five months may be conscious. Obviously babies recognise, and respond to, their mother’s face or voice. But is that an unconscious reflex? The researchers looked for P300 waves, which are markers of conscious visual perception in infants, and found them in the babies. This is not proof, but babies cannot talk and discuss their conscious states like adults. But it strongly suggests their brains are much more advanced than was known.
Talking about brains, Montessori made a great deal of the phase in brain development which she called the absorbent mind (associated with sensitive periods) when the child learns in a different manner to an adult. An international team, led by Takao Hensch (Gervain, 2013) from Harvard University, has published research which shows that that early style of thinking might be reverted to and utilised. The research started from the rather arcane discovery that a mood-stabilising drug (valproate) can help adults achieve perfect pitch. As this is a skill which is usually only available via an early childhood critical period, it is the first indication that the brain may be reverted to an earlier state. The important point is that this is not a general change in cognitive function, but a specific effect on a sensory task associated with a critical period. The authors suggest that “if you can reopen that critical period, you could potentially reawaken learning in all.”
Montessori saw this phase (or plane of development) coming to a natural close around the age of 6 years. Professor Patricia Bauer and her team at Emory College in Atlanta have been studying (Bauer & Larkina, 2013) the phenomenon of childhood amnesia. That is the well-established process whereby children who, when young can recall a lot about their earlier life, forget it all by the time they are in their teens. This is probably another effect of synaptic pruning (see above) and reflects the change, according to the authors, in the style thta children remember. Young children remember indiscriminately, without any sense of evaluation, place or time. Later memories are more adult-like. The research has pinpointed the change-over to around the age of seven – which is very much when the absorbent mind has drawn to a close. One practical observation was that parents who used ‘deflections’ (like asking “Tell me more about …” or “What happened?” tended to have children with better memories. Deflections sound rather like sustained shared thinking, which should be an essential feature of all nurseries.
Another research study (Rogalski, 2013), at the Northwestern University in Illinois, has focused on elderly people (who they term ‘super agers’) who seem to have preserved a youthful brain right into their seventies. They found that the anterior cingulated is thicker in super agers than other adults much younger. The details remain to be elucidated, but earliest results indicate that a particularly keen sense of attention may be significant. In other words, concentration – yet another central feature of Montessori’s thought.
A much more disturbing picture is emerging about the effects of a troubled home life. A study at the University of Oregon (Graham, in press) has shown that parental arguments can have a detrimental effect on even sleeping infant’s brains. Using MRI scans, they showed that an angry voice caused an increase just those parts of the brain (the hypothalamus and cingulated cortex) associated with regulating emotion and stress – for babies from homes with above average levels of conflict. The author comments that this shows the infant’s brain is still absorbing, even when we do not realise it.
All these studies revolve around a central theme – that of brain plasticity. It always used to be thought that the brain, as it developed, became fixed, for better or worse. While their is a lot of truth in this, it is becoming more and more apparent that, in the right circumstances, the brain can change dramatically. Autism is often thought of as totally intractable. However (Fein, 2013) recent work has shown that up to 25% of correctly diagnosed childhood autists show functional recovery (i.e. average participation in class and making friends normally). In terms of classroom practice, the implication of all this is that no-one’s brain (and thus behaviour) is irremediably fixed. Given the right environment and the right treatment (and that of course is the difficult bit) the every child has the potential to self-construct as a peaceful and fulfilled individual. In some cases that is a tall order, but science is showing that it is not an impossible dream.
Bauer, P. & Larkina, M. (2013). Childhood amnesia in the making: different distributions of autobiographical memories in children and adults. J. Exp. Psychol. G. PMID: 23937179.
DevTech Research Group (2013). ScratchJr computer programming in early childhood. Available on www.ase.tufts.edu/DevTech/ScratchJr/research.asp.
Fein, D. et al. (2013). Optimal outcome in individuals with a history of autism. J. Child Psych. And Psychiatry 54(2):
Gervain, J. et al. (2013). Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch. Frontiers of Systems Neuroscience doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2013.00102.
Graham, A.M., et al. (in press). What Sleeping Babies Hear: An fMRI Study of Interparental Conflict and Infants’ Emotion Processing. Psychological Science.
Kouider, S. er al. (2013). A neural marker of perceptual consciousness in infants. Science 340: 376-380.
Rogalski, E.J. et al. (2013). Youthful memory capacity in old brains: anatomic and genetic clues from the Northwestern SuperAging Project. J. Cognitive Neuroscience 25(1): 29-36
Takeuchi, H. et al. (2013). The impact of television viewing on brain structures: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Cerebral Cortex doi:10.1093.cercor/bht315.