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Science & Ideas; Cover Story
How kids learn Babies are quick studies-and parents are cramming them with Mozart and French lessons
David L. Marcus; Anna Mulrine; Kathleen Wong; Deanna Lackaff

09/13/1999
U.S. News & World Report
Page 44
(Copyright 1999)

It is a big day for the “expert baby.” A minivan bearing an official University of Washington seal picks up the 14-month-old boy and his mother and takes them to a Seattle day-care center. Once inside, he is placed at the head of a table surrounded by his “students,” a bevy of babies his age. Researchers from the university’s psychology department observe and take notes.

The miniprofessor begins his lesson: Whaaack! He smacks the top of a special camping cup with his palm, and it collapses. His pupils look at one another, wide-eyed. Then he deftly pulls apart a puzzle and puts it back together. As a finale, he hits a hidden button on a box, which produces a buzzing sound. A delighted squeal rises from the audience. Wunderkind is then whisked away.

Two days later, a researcher visits the houses of each of the young pupils, unpacking a black bag to reveal the little professor’s toys. The infants grin in recognition and repeat the tricks they observed. Like the expert baby before them, they have mastered these routines. But when the researchers visit babies who haven’t been primed, the results are decidedly different. Those babies bang the cup on the table, but never collapse it. They chew on the puzzle, but don’t assemble it. They rub the box, but fail to find the secret button.

The expert baby and his cohorts are part of a revolution in how scientists view very young children. For most of this century, infants were regarded as gurgling blobs, soaking up sights and sounds but unable to make much use of them. But it turns out that babies are reasoning beings even in their very first months. “Before they have the ability to use language, infants can think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do miniexperiments,” says Andrew Meltzoff, head of developmental psychology at the University of Washington and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib, published this week.

Harmful myths. These insights have unleashed a torrent of views about bringing up babies. Do they need organized activities to satisfy their inquiring young minds? Are there “critical periods” for learning in the first three years that must be exploited, lest a child be forever at a disadvantage? Many parents and educators have embraced these notions, even though there’s scant proof of a connection. “There is this pervasive belief that by investing in the early years, you’re going to inoculate your child against later academic shortcomings,” says John Bruer, the author of the newly published The Myth of the First Three Years. “It’s an abuse of the neuroscience, and it’s misleading to parents. We all feel anxious enough already.”

Indeed, in the quest for a better and brighter child, parents can today choose from a dizzying array of “enrichment” products. They can buy videos like Brainy Baby Vol. 1 (“for your child’s right brain”) and Vol. 2 (for the left), which promise to “actually make your child smarter!” Educational software for children as young as 6 months, called “lapware” because the children are so small they must be held in a parent’s lap at the computer, is now the fastest-growing segment of the software industry, with titles like JumpStart Baby. “Ivy League” preschools have sprung up across the country (box, Page 48). And in Chicago, tots can blow off steam at the Children’s Health & Executive Club, the first fitness center for members as young as 17 months. The workout experience includes tiny stair-climbing machines equipped with Magna Doodles (a second-generation Etch-a-Sketch). “If you have good eye-hand coordination, you’ll be better at reading. If you have body balance, you’ll learn math more easily,” says owner Latrice Lee, who charges $5 for an hourlong session.

Rather than preparing a child for a lifetime of high achievement, some researchers warn that overstimulation can actually impede learning. “If you try to teach infants with too much stimulation,” says Arnold Sameroff, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, “it takes them much longer to learn than if you pace it out.”

Consider the confusing world a baby sees: A bottle sits on a desk, and a picture hangs on a wall. Where does the desk stop and the bottle begin? How does the picture float? Can everything do that? A father prattles on about traffic. Which are the meaningful words in the stream of garble? At the dawn of this century, William James, a pioneering psychologist and philosopher, decided that infants were overwhelmed by the cacophony around them and were most interested in sleeping through it all. Today we know that a newborn brain is a complex computer that arrives with its wiring incomplete. An infant cannot focus his or her eyes more than a foot away, nor remember what happened five minutes ago. But baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, which will sprout 1,000 trillion synapses before the child graduates from diapers. As these connections come online, the brain’s many parts start to work in concert.

Early learning. The processing power inside that still-soft skull suggests that infants know a lot more than they are able to convey. But gathering hard scientific data on babies is not as easy as it might seem, because even the latest brain imaging technologies can’t make out fine details, nor can they be used on babies: PET scans pose a radiation risk, and infants wriggle too much for an MRI. As a consequence, only a few researchers are investigating infant neural function. What they’re finding is ample evidence that babies start on their journey of learning much earlier than traditionally thought. Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota, measures the raw electrical signals emitted by the brain by attaching up to 128 electrodes on babies’ scalps. He has discovered that even newborns produce distinctive brain waves showing they can distinguish their mothers’ voices from another woman’s, even while asleep.

Between 3 and 12 months, babies show an explosion in skills, which parallels big increases in the number of synaptic connections in their brains. The density of synapses in the visual system peaks at 3 months, allowing the development of depth perception. By 3 months, the cerebellum, which coordinates motor control, has matured enough for the baby to try to roll over. Meanwhile, the brain centers responsible for comprehending language have made enough connections to start functioning. Even before babies can say “dada,” they seem to have the basic tools for learning syntax. To confirm this, Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist at New York University, exposed 7-month-olds to an artificial language for two minutes. They heard sentences such as “la ta la” followed by a slight variation, like “la la ta.” The infants discerned the difference and paid more attention to the sentences with changes.

There is increasing evidence that babies also come equipped with an astounding set of rules about how the world works. On a colorfully painted puppet-show stage, psychologist Renee Baillargeon of the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign times how long 2-to 15-month-old babies look at simple magic tricks, such as a toy bear that disappears after being lowered into a box. Like adults at a magic show, babies will stare longer when their expectations aren’t met. At 2 1/2 months, babies are surprised by the bear’s disappearance and will look longer than at a show where the bear remains in the box. She has concluded that even infants understand that objects should be permanent in time and space.

Baby logic. At the same time, Baillargeon is gaining insight into what babies don’t understand. Before 3 months, for example, they seem to believe that as long as one object is touching another, the two should stick together. By that principle, a pen placed on the wall should not fall. “This is probably why babies’ chairs are surrounded by 92 things on the floor,” Baillargeon says.

By 8 months, the neurons in the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in memory, have developed to the point where babies can remember specific items and events. Research by the University of Minnesota’s Nelson has shown that by that age, babies can distinguish the picture of a wooden toy they were allowed to feel, but not see, from pictures of other toys. By the age of 1 year, babies have gained so many skills-toddling, prattling, feeding themselves-that they seem more akin to adults than to the helpless sleepers they were a few short months earlier. This sudden maturity stems from a combination of new experiences and new synaptic connections in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which lies just behind the forehead. Like a conductor in an orchestra, the prefrontal cortex keeps track of what’s going on in time and space, and it coordinates everything from problem solving and creativity to self-awareness. Thanks to this, 18-month-olds can learn to do tasks such as pushing a button, even if the adult demonstrating the task tries, but deliberately fails, to push it.

By the time they’re 2, babies are able to navigate their world. At Temple University’s Infant Lab, outside Philadelphia, researchers bury a toy in a round sandbox in a stark, white room while a toddler watches. Then the child is turned around several times with his eyes covered. With just a chair against the wall to orient him, the child has to find the toy. Psychologist Nora Newcombe has found that those under 21 months are baffled by the test, because spatial skills require more brainpower than verbal skills. But at 21 months, as the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex develops, the children become remarkably adept at what the experts call spatial coding-using cues from the environment to get their bearings.

With more-sophisticated brain wiring and a growing understanding of how the world works, children in the second year of life start to develop social and emotional skills, which help in learning academic skills such as reading and math. “Emotions are responsible for generating ideas,” says Stanley Greenspan, who teaches psychiatry at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After all, he says, the desire to eat or open a door is the motivation for developing language and communicating concepts to others.

Babies start to show social skills before they can form a complete sentence. Alison Gopnik, a University of California-Berkeley psychologist, gave 14-month-olds a bowl of Goldfish crackers, which they universally loved, and a bowl of broccoli, which they disliked. A researcher expressed a preference for broccoli and then asked the toddlers to “give me some.” They gave her the Goldfish, refusing to believe that she would rather have broccoli. However, 18-month-olds handed over the broccoli. “They learn something very hard and important,” says Gopnik, “and that’s that people want different things.” Alan Leslie, a psychologist at Rutgers University, has demonstrated that even children with Down’s syndrome can correctly predict the expectations of others. As a result, he believes that ability must be instinctive but honed by experience. No one knows how much is nature, how much nurture.

Beyond the laboratory, these findings have sparked a proliferation of efforts to capitalize on them, from measures in more than two dozen states to expand access to preschool, to all manner of classes and educational toys. And much effort has gone into bringing music to the under-2 set. Georgia and Tennessee now send a classical-music CD home with every newborn, and Florida requires public schools to play classical music for toddlers. The Delos label markets Baby Needs Mozart, a recent Billboard chart-topper, as well as Baby Needs Beethoven and Baby Needs Baroque. No matter that a study released last month in the journal Nature found, as lead author Kenneth Steele of Appalachian State University says, that “there’s very little-OK, there’s no evidence-to suggest that these CDs do anything special.”

But what about the rest of it-the lapware, the better-baby institutes? “None of it will help build your baby a better brain,” says John Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds research on neuroscience and cognition. He argues that most people misinterpret what scientists have discovered about infants’ rapid cognitive development. As a result, Bruer says, two myths have permeated society. One is that enrichment activities allow the brain to grow more synapses than it would have otherwise. The second is that basic learning skills are hard-wired in the first three years, and that this process ends when the period of rapid synapse formation ends, forever closing these “critical periods” of development.

Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists applaud Bruer’s stance. “Whether you’re using a megaphone to talk to your child in utero, or labeling everything in their little world with flashcards, you’re not going to unleash some special brain potential,” says Ross Thompson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Nebraska. For one thing, the theory that the environment stimulates brainpower grew largely out of research conducted in the 1970s on rats. Animals in cages “enriched” by wheels and other toys had more synapses in certain parts of their brains and performed simple learning tasks better than did rats living in barren cages.

Fundamental differences. “Aside from the problem of what’s true for rats may not be true for children,” explains Jack Shonkoff, chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, “the difference between enriched and severely deprived is very different than the difference, as most parents extrapolate, between a good and a great environment.”

Cognitive researchers say that they never intended these periods to be considered windows that slam shut. The theory of critical periods arose not out of behavioral research but from 1960s studies showing that kittens kept from using one eye during the first three months of life never regained their sight. While basic systems such as vision and speech require specific sensory experiences to develop correctly, neuroscientists can’t say for sure whether any other brain functions have periods when stimulation is critical for normal development.

Indeed, the latest research indicates that the brain continues to grow throughout life to adapt to experience: It’s almost indefinitely resilient. Even children who suffered extreme sensory deprivation in infancy, such as those in Romanian orphanages, have largely caught up once placed in a normal environment.

There is broad consensus, however, that children who aren’t getting enough stimulation at home can fall behind their peers. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that mothers on welfare were less apt to engage their toddlers in conversation: The average child in a welfare family heard 616 words an hour, compared with 2,153 words in families headed by professionals. Chronic stress, whether from neglect or an unstable family situation, can short-circuit learning; elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may retard neuronal growth. Megan Gunnar, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, has found babies with insecure relationships with their parents secreted extra cortisol when confronted with scary situations while levels in babies with strong parental ties remained normal.

For children in nurturing environments, however, less seems to be at stake. Parents may want to do everything right, but it may not be essential to the child’s ability to thrive. When Peggy Brummond’s son Shane, now 2, was floating in utero, she listened to Mozart. The night the newborn came home to Clarendon Hills, Ill., his parents placed him in a bassinet and “had classical music playing all night long.” When he hit 18 months, Peggy brought home some lapware. Was it all for naught?

Little things. Not at all, developmental psychologists say, as long as parents don’t substitute classes for conversation and software for strolls in the park. That’s Bruer’s message as well. “Children get all of the stimuli they need from things they encounter in the everyday world-crawling in grass, playing with pots, hearing you speak.”

Indeed, too much enrichment can be a dangerous thing. Parents who drill their infants with flashcards for hours on end also run the risk of overloading them. In studies, children show when they’ve had too much by turning away, closing eyes, or starting to fidget or cry, according to the University of Michigan’s Sameroff. Other researchers second the caution. Shonkoff, chair of the National Academy of Sciences committee, says that “artificial pressures from a superenriched environment-particularly when anxious parents are standing by, waiting for their child to succeed-can be detrimental.”

So what are Peggy Brummond and other well-meaning parents to do? Is Baby Mozart too much? Is Barney too little? “Relax, and let go of the guilt,” advises Joan Goodman, director of the Early Childhood Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. But don’t be ashamed: Go ahead and fire up that Bionic Baby Brain Builder mini-laptop. Then hide it under the sofa, get on your hands and knees, and help your child to peek under pillows and toddle along on a magical treasure hunt.

Developing an intellect

As a child’s brain develops, it becomes possible to acquire new skills.

BIRTH . At less than a pound, a newborn brain is one third the size of an adult’s, and trillions of its neural connections remain incomplete.

3 MONTHS . Brain synapses reach maximum density in areas that control vision. Babies distinguish colors well and track movement smoothly.

6 MONTHS. Growth in the brain area that makes it possible to understand and produce speech is in full swing. Babies start imitating sounds.

12 MONTHS. The hippocampus, seat of memory, has matured enough for toddlers to be able to recall events that happened a few minutes earlier.

18 MONTHS. The child’s longer attention span and ability to plan and carry out a course of action hint at the emerging talents of the prefrontal cortex.

24 MONTHS. With increased brainpower at their disposal and experience navigating the world, toddlers can find hidden things on their own.

TOYS THAT LIVE UP TO THE HYPE

Toy reviewer Joanne Oppenheim recommends:

Enchanted Garden Playmat (Manhattan Toy, $60). Infant and up. There’s a sunflower that turns with a rachet sound, and a peek-a-boo ladybug.

Space Coaster (Anatex, $16). Ages 18 months and up. A new shape for the classic wire maze.

Magic Sound Animal Blocks (Small World, $10). Ages 2 and up. Match the animal halves, and sheep bleat, cows moo.

Picture: Focus. Toddlers learn how things work by observing closely and then testing their perceptions. (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Picture: Mastery. A researcher demonstrates tricks used to test a tot’s recall. ((Top) David Butow-SABA for USN&WR); Picture: No caption (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Picture: Memory. A cap full of electrodes tracks a growing ability to remember. (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Picture: Strength. Growing physical abilities give children a sense of control. (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Picture: Softness. A diaphanous scarf is all it takes to enliven a music class. (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Picture: Wonder. A backyard sprinkler’s spangled veil enchants toddlers. (Kenneth Jarecke-Contact for USN&WR); Pictures: No caption (Charlie Archambault for USN&WR)

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