The beneficial effects of stimulating a child’s brain have been known for decades, at least in general terms. That is to say, children who have been regularly played with, read to, and generally interacted with by adults have a great advantage over those children who did not receive these things. The key period for this appears to be up to the age of three years. For an example of this sort of research see here, whose authors conclude:
Child development was strongly associated with socio-economic position, maternal schooling and stimulation.
General observations like this demonstrate how mental growth is entangled with the effects of socioeconomic status. Children who are economically disadvantaged encounter many problems that affect cognitive development, such as poorer nutrition, more chaotic home life, and emotional stress. Any solid information on the effect of stimulation, and of what kind, would help us sort out the relative importance of these various things. Now we some fascinating recent data about that issue.
A recent study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine just what reading to a child does to the child’s brain. The reason to examine reading in particular is that literacy and language skills correlate with later achievement. As the investigators state:
Disparities in home cognitive environment during childhood can have dramatic impact on achievement and health. Parent-child reading has been shown to improve certain emergent literacy skills, though its effect on the brain has not yet been shown.
So a big question here is precisely what does mental stimulation, particularly reading, do to a child’s brain? Can we document what is happening between the ears? Now we have some information about that. The investigators did fMRI scans on children to identify what regions of the brain reading activated. What they found was this (from the American Academy of Pediatrics summary):
Results showed that greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading. Brain areas supporting mental imagery showed particularly strong activation, suggesting that visualization plays a key role in narrative comprehension and reading readiness, allowing children to “see” the story. This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text.
It is important that these observations held up even after controlling for socioeconomic status. I should note that this research is reported in what we term abstract form — the complete details are yet to be published. It also has not been confirmed (as far as I know) by other investigators yet. Even with these caveats, finding a physical locus in the brain for complicated mental events is exciting stuff.
There is a footnote to this research that goes back to the Baby Einstein controversy in 2007. If you didn’t know, the Baby Einstein products were videos whose authors claimed were educational in the sense of improving learning and brain development in infants and toddlers. The company was sued for false advertising claims and the Disney Corporation (the owner) paid out refunds to those who had bought them. More about that controversy here. Research published in 2007 actually showed regression of language in children who watched a lot of these videos. So how can we square that with the experience of reading to your child being good for the brain?
I have no data to offer about this, but I suspect the difference between putting your child in front of a TV and reading to him or her is the personal interaction that accompanies reading.