Researchers Used Sesame Street to Predict Kids' Test Scores

It turns out the show provides insights to neuroscientists as well.

Mitt Romney kicked the hornet's nest during the presidential debates last fall when he promised to put the kibosh on Sesame Street if we put him in office. The audacity! The popular publicly-funded television program, which is broadcast in 140 countries around the world, more than pays for itself by educating, entertaining, and baby-sitting the minds of the world's children since 1969. Some argue it actually makes children smarter, which may be true. It turns out the show provides insights to neuroscientists as well.

Researchers at the University of Oregon recently showed that brain activity in small children watching Sesame Street can be used as an accurate predictor of how those kids will score on intelligence tests. For their study, neuroscientists put kids in fMRI machines and imaged their brains on Sesame Street. The idea is that by watching how our brains react to "naturalistic" visual stimuli -- say, TV shows, computer screens and images of nature -- scientists can measure our "unconstrained thoughts" and develop a web of associations linking certain stimulants and specific brain responses. The researchers call that metric "neural maturity."

The experiment involved 27 kids between ages 4 and 11, as well as 20 adults. Each person watched a 20-minute episode of Sesame Street featuring lessons in letters and numbers. During the show, researchers mapped the neural activity of each person. After the show, the kids took standardized IQ tests in math and verbal skills. The brains of kids who scored well on the tests most closely matched the neural maps of adults. The researchers published their findings in PLoS Biology earlier this month.

A figure from the study showing A) Sesame Street sample frames (awesome) and B) correlations in brain activity in various regions as compared between adults and children. Children who had similar brain activity to adults while watching Sesame Street had comparatively higher test scores than those that didn't.

Why Sesame Street? Well, name another TV show reaches more than 120 million impressionable young brains around the world. We are a civilization raised on the lessons of Big Bird and morality of Oscar the Grouch. 

(Sidenote: The paper was submitted about two months before Romney's threat to cancel Big Bird, and accepted for publication about 5 weeks after.)

The key conclusion is that "the degree to which children's brains show adult-like patterns...predicts their real-world academic performance," notes a synopsis of the article. Specifically, the researchers peered into viewers' "intraparietal sulcus," a bit of your parietal lobe that corresponds to eye-hand coordination, visual attention, and interpreting intentions. 

The point of the study, the researchers say, isn't to forge proof that Sesame Street equals intelligence, so much as it supports the argument that using education videos to study brain development is legitimate. Basically, if you monitor kids' neural activity in real-time as they watch Sesame Street, you'd be able to pick out which elements of the show stimulate kids' thought processes.

An enterprising individual, institution or company could use that information to tailor broadcasting to manipulate viewers' thoughts. It's the kind of research we should be considering as Google prepares to launch Google Glasses and the boom of neural interfacing technology looms ahead.