Scientists can't really know what a child is thinking, but they are interested in the brain processes that happen in educational settings. To that end, a new study in PLOS Biology compares the brains of children and adults, using "Sesame Street" as a way to test what happens on a neurological level during a popular TV program aimed at learning.
"We're kind of honing in on what brain regions are important for real-world mathematics learning in children," said lead study author Jessica Cantlon, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
Participants included 27 typically developing children, ages 4 to 10, and 20 adults between ages 18 and 25. Each participant took part in one or more of the three components to the study.
Researchers focused on what happens in the brain during mathematical lessons. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the neural activity in participants.
In one part of the experiment, children and adults watched the same 20-minute montage of clips from "Sesame Street," and the fMRI scanner measured their brain activity for the duration of the video. Some clips were related to counting, while others were about colors, animals and other non-math topics. In a different task, participants had to determine whether the stimuli they were shown were the same or different, such as faces and numbers. Children were also given standardized IQ tests after the scanning.
Researchers found that adult-like brain responses tended to show up in kids who demonstrated higher math and verbal knowledge levels. A brain region called the interparietal sulcus appeared to be linked to mathematics, as activity in that area tended to increase during math-related "Sesame Street" segments.
This area of the brain has been linked to working memory in previous research, and there has been some debate about its role in mathematics learning.
The researchers do not have enough evidence to say that this is a causal factor, however. In other words, they do not know if these neural patterns are the cause or effect of learning.
A different brain region called Broca's area was associated with verbal knowledge, which has been well established by other scientists.
The sample size was small for this study. Although this is typical for fMRI studies, especially given the cost involved in such protocols, more research needs to be done to confirm these findings and better explain their role in the learning process.
Cantlon and colleagues did not compare the neural responses to "Sesame Street" with any other real-world educational program or classroom setting, which could be another area of inquiry. However, it is hard to control exactly what happens in a "classroom setting" scenario, which is an advantage of showing everyone the same TV show montage.
Also, the age range of the children who participated was broad; a future study could focus on particular age groups, Cantlon said.
"It would be nice to put a finer point on that, and test children in narrower age windows with narrower skill sets to see if we could find even finer relationships, perhaps in subsections of this interparietal sulcus region, in certain types of math skills," she said.