The way your children absorb information from the television program Sesame street could reveal how well developed they are intellectually, according to a novel new study.

The study, which used special equipment to examine children’s thought patterns while watching the program, has helped scientists to better understand children’s intellectual development.


Funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the study has been published in the January issue of the journal PLoS Biology.

It focussed on how individual children’s brains responded to the material in Sesame Street, showing that the brains of some children were able to respond more like the brains of adults. These children were subsequently shown to perform better on intellectual tests.

Lead author Jessica Cantlon, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, said: “It’s a step in the direction toward understanding what typical brain development looks like and predicting what might be going wrong.”

She said the research made it possible to predict how well specific children will learn things such as maths and eventually to establish what is going wrong with children who are having trouble.

“It could be something wrong with their concept of numbers, or that there’s something more generally wrong – a kind of memory or attention impairment,” she said. “You could use brain activity as another tool to see what’s going wrong.”

An associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, neuroscientist Daniel Ansari, welcomed the research as a breakthrough.

“We can use this to understand how children approach these inputs, what kind of information they [pay attention] to,” he said.

Developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, Timothy Brown, said the findings don’t say anything specifically about “Sesame Street” but about how kids think. He said the study “suggests that the kids who did the best were able to focus the most, and are probably better at that in general”.

He said that the study confirmed that children who are better at [focusing] in general are better at acquiring learned academic skills, because doing so requires attention, concentration and mental effort.

“However, the study is also novel in its use of more fluid, naturalistic, ‘real-world’ visual stimuli,” he said, “which is innovative and important for advancing research on human brain development.”


William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.