Psych | Science

Study Measures Brain Activity During Sesame Street

Recent advancements in brain imaging have allowed scientists to peer into the once secret world inside our heads. One of these techniques, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), lets them see which parts of the brain light up in real time.

An fMRI machine detects blood flow to various parts of the brain. When one of these areas lights up, or becomes activated, it is thought that region is processing information more intensely than its neighbors. Neuroscientists are interested in seeing which brain regions become activated when people perform different tasks.

These studies require participants to remain still while lying on their back inside a giant cylindrical machine. They are usually asked to complete simple tasks like comparing two words or images and indicating if they are the same or different. But information processing in the real world is almost always more complicated than that.

Now researchers at the University of Rochester have evidence that fMRI techniques can be used to study more natural information processing in the human brain. In addition to the traditional stimuli matching task, they had children (between 4-10 years old) and young adults (between 18-25 years old) watch a 20-minute video of Sesame Street while measuring their neural activity.

In the children, they found the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), a brain area associated with number processing, and Broca’s area, which is associated with language, activated independently in response to the content of the Sesame Street episode. Their finding suggests that educational videos can trigger specific brain activity depending on what is being shown on the screen.

By comparing the children’s neural activity with that of the adults, the researchers came up with what they call “neural maturity” maps. They found that a child’s level of brain maturity could accurately predict their scores on standardized math and verbal tests.

In their paper, the researchers suggest their approach to measuring information processing “more fully engage the faculties that are used to learn in the real world” than the simple and controlled stimuli-matching tasks. They also note that children moved their heads less and “seemed calmer and more engaged” in the fMRI machine while watching Sesame Street than during the traditional task. Future studies like this one have the potential to improve our understanding of how children learn in natural settings.

The research was published last month in the journal PLOS Biology. To read the full-text article, see Neural Activity during Natural Viewing of Sesame Street Statistically Predicts Test Scores in Early Childhood.

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