Books Trim the Brain – ScienceNOW


NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Books and educational toys can make a child smarter, but they also influence how the brain grows, according to new research presented here on Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. The findings point to a “sensitive period” early in life during which the developing brain is strongly influenced by environmental factors.

Studies comparing identical and nonidentical twins show that genes play an important role in the development of the cerebral cortex, the thin, folded structure that supports higher mental functions. But less is known about how early life experiences influence how the cortex grows. To investigate, neuroscientist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues recruited 64 children from a low income background and followed them from birth through to late adolescence. They visited the children’s homes at 4 and 8 years of age to evaluate their environment, noting factors such as the number of books and educational toys in their houses, and how much warmth and support they received from their parents.

More than 10 years after the second home visit, the researchers used MRI to obtain detailed images of the participants’ brains. They found that the level of mental stimulation a child receives in the home at age 4 predicted the thickness of two regions of the cortex in late adolescence, such that more stimulation was associated with a thinner cortex. One region, the lateral inferior temporal gyrus, is involved in complex visual skills such as word recognition.


Written By: Moheb Costandi
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  1. Interesting article. I’m wondering, however, how children were ever able to grow up to responsible adults in the past. The protective environment children grow up in today is hardly representative of the natural environment, like e.g. the open savanna. Stress, fear, diseases and so forth are threats we try to exclude from children’s lives as much as possible but used to be omnipresent in the time humans evolved. Is this (having books around etc) the cause for the alleged annual increase in general intelligence? I’m a bit skeptical of that claim. Simply because if it were true it would mean my parents are already of less than average intelligence and my grand parents would be just above the mentally handicapped level. Which is nonsense because I know my grand mother was a very smart woman (playing trivia games with her was useless, she knew everything). Could it be that having books around during childhood simply prepares a child better for the modern environment in which written data processing is vital? Or are these children really better at solving any kind of problem? This reminds me of an experiment I ones witnessed in which we had a team of air force cadets compete with a team of enlisted men of supposed lower intelligence at the task of putting up a tent. For both teams this was a new project and they also didn’t know they were competing with each other. The cadets argued on the best method for a long time and it took them over half an hour to put the tent up. The enlisted men just put up the tent in a matter of minutes. What does this mean? According to the article the more intelligent cadets would have had a thinner cortex and more efficient processing capabilities. But why then did the less intelligent enlisted men solve the problem so much quicker? Food for thought.

  2. So that explains it. At age four, my favorite record was “The Pied Piper of Hamlin,” as read by Dame Peggy Ashcroft. It took until I learned to read to find out who she was, and even longer to find out why her first name was “Dame” (Pennsylvania doesn’t have any).

    Just today I found out she was agnostic.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Do these brains ( and the brains of the parents stimulating) benefit from the stimulation received, or do the brains ( and the brains of the parents stimulating ) seek the stimulation?

    The causal arrow needs to be directed here.

  4. I expected this question (and should have answered it beforehand of course..).

    It wasn’t my experiment. I only witnessed it and talked to the people that did think of the experiment. They explaned what the experiment was about. They expected the outcome but weren’t ready to explane why it went the way it did nor were they finished with the test because one such test wouldn’t prove a thing. But they had information on the men’s IQs.

  5.  Sometimes the more intelligent person over thinks situations leading to indecisiveness. procrastination, over analysis, and heavy discussions.

    Also, IQ tests tend to not be able to show a persons practical skills. IQ cannot judge creativity, ability to visualize, organize, draw, play an instrument, work with others or by oneself. IQ cannot determine someone’s stamina or strength in pitching a tent. It cannot judge the interpersonal skills and personality compatibility of all people working on a task.

    Ever meet an intelligent man who cannot change a tire? Yep – he ends up not looking so smart.

  6. I’d hazard a guess that the cadets were officer ‘class’ headed for military academy via university and, as Q.Kat pointed out, probably more intellectual than practical. The practical ‘other ranks’ will be more likely to use the ‘monkey see- monkey do’ approach, tackling problems as they arise; the intelligent officers will talk around any and all potential problems before picking up a tent-peg in anger so the operation in question – in this case putting up a tent – will proceed as smoothly as possible.

  7. Unfortunate title. Someone reading the title might presume the finding was books were harmful to children.  An analogy. The understimulated brain is like a virgin PLA (Program Logic Array) and a stimulated one is one whose fuses have been blown to program it.

  8. Well, the cadets didn’t really talk around to solve the problem as smoothly as possible. Each had his own brilliant solution to the problem and was unable to see the other brilliant cadets view as another good solution to the problem. Actually it was quite funny to watch. You said it right that they were more intellectual than practical.
    I have seen the same happen with university educated meteorologists. Many of them were brilliant but very unable to produce a usable weather forecast. They wanted to know everything and wouldn’t listen to practical advice. They were unable to decide which information was important and which wasn’t.
    The other group was definitely more practical. The term “Monkey see Monkey do” sounds a bit degrading (although I don’t think that you mean it that way). I think that they are better at communicating at the practical level. They are not as convinced about their own knowledge and as a result more likely to listen to advice.
    I have no judgment on either form by the way. We need people who are practical and we also need people who can stick with their ideas to be able to work them out and eventually come up with better solutions to complex problems.

  9. You’re right, ‘monkey see monkey do’ was the wrong phrase for a direct, practical approach.

    We need people who are practical and we also need people who can stick with their ideas to be able to work them out and eventually come up with better solutions to complex problems.

    And more importantly, we need them to work together.

  10.  No, I never have met an intelligent man who could not change a tire. Changing a tire is a problem solving task.

    ” Also, IQ tests tend to not be able to show a persons practical skills “


    Then I guess all that reverse span, reaction time and rotating objects in space testing ( to mention a few IQ tests ) have no practicality?

    Sorry, I would rather my pilot be much better at reaction time testing than playing a tuba.  

  11. Because the problem was trivial and some people are prone to overthinking, I guess. Also, who said people on the savannah grew into responsible adults? I’m pretty sure the whole concept isn’t that old.
    And then for thousands of years, people were molded into responsible adults by scaring them pantsless with religion, telling them they should follow some simple rules or suffer for all eternity.
    (And even then, they weren’t so responsible about it)

    Also, if you want to compete in the art of problem solving, any kind of “problem” that comes with an instruction manual is probably not a good problem to test with.

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