Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Common Sense Study: Virtual Reality, Television, and Budding Brains

My mother was telling me the other day that someone's done a study on virtual reality, and discovered that, when people are reading and engrossed in a book, what happens in their head is essentially the same as virtual reality.

To which I can only roll my eyes and wonder if my tax dollars went to pay for said study. In other words, duh.

This reminds me of a study I read a year ago on Broadsheet, one that found out that the sight of their baby's smile triggers peaceful, loving hormones in mothers. Gasp! I mean, really. You couldn't just say, figure that out from looking at people?

And yet, it seems like we so often need studies like these, because people's grasp of common sense is so slippery. We need studies like these -- seemingly expensive and unecessary -- to reaffirm the obvious for the mass population that logic brushes only tangentially.

For example, the news this last week or two that bank executives in the US are using government bailout money to give themselves huge bonuses. Everyone's shocked. And all I can say is that you didn't need a PhD in anything so complex as underwater basket weaving to have seen that coming. The assumption that the executives would have been chastened and suddenly behave in a fiscally responsible manner defies even the most basic logic.

If any of the blind people in government or think tanks had asked me for advice, this is what I would have mapped out for them:

A. Greedy people are greedy.
B. Greedy people are generally greedy rather than smart (they use their brains to acquire more of what they're greedy for), and they're certainly never altruistic.
C. Greedy people made decisions that made them lots of money and flattened the economy.
D. The government then gave the greedy people more money, trusting said greedy people to use it wisely.

What do you think happens next?

This is all aside from the common sense realization that an economy based on people buying stuff they don't need with money they don't have is by definition unhealthy, no matter how fast it grows.

Personally, I'd go for a common sense study that researches something more useful than what happens in our brains while we're reading, or even what happens if you hand a bunch of bank executives billions of dollars with no strings attached.

I'd like to lobby hard for a study that goes into depth to examine what happens to the brain development of children exposed to any significant telelvision time before the age of three. I read a survey result recently that found that 45% of American children under age three have a television in their bedrooms. Situations like this, and DVD players in cars are, I'm willing to bet, far more damaging to brain development than, say, being exposed to moderate amounts of wine in utero.

When I saw that little statistic in my Mothering magazine, I flipped immediately to the section on the visual cortex in my favorite parenting book, What's Going on in There? by Lise Eliot, a neurobiologist. The visual cortex is essential to brain development, and does a lot of its growing in those first three years. Television is not evil per se, but watching it has an unknown and likely huge impact on the tiny brains of infants.

I've met many parents who have proclaimed to me how quiet their kids are in front of Spongebob, or how they love to watch Baby Einstein. They never make the connection that the mental fixation, and glazed expression directed toward flickering pixels and images that will never in fact interact with them, has to be hugely damaging to babies' tiny, developing brains.

That's a study I'd get behind. After all, even though my son has never met television or fruit juice, he will be spending the rest of his life interacting with children, and then grown-ups, who did. Seemingly simple parenting decisions like this can have unforseen and enormous consequences. Without a study -- confirming what, to me, seems to be common sense -- it seems that we can't change people's behavior.


Anonymous said...

Love your mind.

maniacalmind said...

There are lots of university programs that have conducted studies on infants and TV. University of Michigan has a great site on TV for children from Infant to teenager: http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/tv.htm
And also science daily has some good stuff: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/09/010924061623.htm.
I'm still working my way through this study: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/Zero-to-Six-Electronic-Media-in-the-Lives-of-Infants-Toddlers-and-Preschoolers-PDF.pdf
It's very broad, but at the end it poses interesting questions for further research.
When we lived in Maryland I took my children to be participants in university studies. It was a great experience and my favorite part and the kids' was that they all got a free toy or book, even the siblings who went that weren't participating in the study. It was one of those advantages that you were talking about that can only be had from living in a city near universities and those public resources. My kids do watch tv. And my oldest plays video games. When my kids were very little they never watched tv, we were always too busy playing and they were never interested until they could see what was going on. But even though we watch tv, we always limit it and we make an effort to discuss the programs with them and ask them about what they were learning and seeing. It's the same with any learning toys, you can't just hand it to the kid and turn them lose, you have to interact with them. And this Christmas break my boy and I are using our electronics for a fun project: we're going to make a stop motion video using his legos. My kids like tv, but they love books just as much and we are always outside playing in the dirt and running around. I always follow the adage: moderation in everything. I do think it's a little sad when I see parents park their kids in front of the tv and then leave. My neighbor has a 18 month old who was watching 8-10 hours of tv a day and the child was completely unsocialized. It was heart wrenching to see and due to other problems the child was removed from the home by child services. (I don't live in the best neighborhood on the planet). But it was just shocking and very telling to see that, yes tv watching in the extreme does have a negative impact on children. But I don't concern myself too much with what other parents do or don't do (unless as was the case earlier it was a danger to the child). Even with all these studies out there, even if the findings showed some hugely detrimental effects, the children who would suffer the most from tv's effects don't have parents who read scientific studies or even care about trying to increase their child's cognitive abilities. People are going to do the simplest, cheapest things that require the least amount of effort. And I think that ties in nicely with the studies that you were discussing at the beginning of this post :) And FYI those studies are conducted because the government gives out too much reasearch money to the wrong institutions and the research students who do those junior high school level science fair experiments are products of our failing public school systems.

Antonia Malchik said...

Well, if you don't live in the best neighborhood you certainly live in an interesting one! It must be fascinating to be able to participate in research studies at universities. We live in a very rural area, so are always too far for that.

I think we agree on this one -- moderation in everything. I just didn't want my son to get used to watching TV early, and read a lot about its detrimental effect on brain development before the age of 3. But we have lots of Thomas Tank Engine videos waiting for when he's ready for them, and I look forward to introducing him to Sesame Street. And, even though I'm opposed to having video games in my house at all (my sister got addicted at one point), I have to admit the ones like Guitar Hero and some of the dancing ones look like a lot of fun for families to do together.

And you're definitely right about the families who benefit from the studies not being the ones who need them. There's not much we can do about that. It is sad, but like you said we just can't worry about how other people are raising their children. How could we survive if we did?

Junio high school experiments! What a great analogy!