From: April 17, '97 New York Times
 April 17, 1997

 Studies Show Talking With Infants Shapes
 Basis of Ability to Think


       When a White House conference on early child development
       convenes on Thursday, one of the findings Hillary Clinton will
       hear from scientists is that the neurological foundations for
 rational thinking, problem solving and general reasoning appear to be
 largely established by age 1 -- long before babies show any signs of
 knowing an abstraction from a pacifier. 

 Furthermore, new studies are showing that spoken language has an
 astonishing impact on an infant's brain development. In fact, some
 researchers say the number of words an infant hears each day is the single
 most important predictor of later intelligence, school success and social
 competence. There is one catch -- the words have to come from an
 attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to
 determine, radio and television do not work. 

 "We now know that neural connections are formed very early in life and
 that the infant's brain is literally waiting for experiences to determine
 how connections are made," said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist at the
 University of Washington in Seattle and a key speaker at Thursday's
 conference. "We didn't realize until very recently how early this process
 begins," she said in a telephone interview. "For example, infants have
 learned the sounds of their native language by the age of six months." 

 This relatively new view of infant brain development, supported by many
 scientists, has obvious political and social implications. It suggests that
 infants and babies need not only a loving, but talkative and articulate
 caretaker, and that a more verbal family will increase an infant's chances
 for success. It challenges some deeply held beliefs -- that infants will
 thrive intellectually if they are simply given lots of love and that efforts
 to purposely influence the cognitive development of babies are harmful. 

 If the period from birth to 3 is crucial, parents may assume a more critical
 role in a child's intellectual development than teachers, which is sure to
 provoke new debates about parental responsibility, said Dr. Irving Lazar, a
 professor of special education and resident scholar at the Center for
 Research in Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
 Tenn. And it offers yet another reason to provide stimulating, high quality
 daycare for infants whose primary caretakers work, which is unavoidably

 The idea that early experience shapes human potential is not new, said Dr.
 Harry Chugani, a pediatric neurologist at Wayne State University in
 Detroit and one of the scientists whose research has shed light on critical
 periods in child brain development. What is new is the extent of the
 research in the field known as cognitive neuroscience and the resulting
 synthesis of findings on the influence of both nature and nurture. Before
 birth, it appears that genes predominantly direct how the brain establishes
 basic wiring patterns. Neurons grow and travel into distinct
 neighborhoods, waiting further instructions. 

 After birth, it seems that environmental factors predominate. A recent
 study found that mice exposed to an enriched environment have more
 brain cells than mice raised in less intellectually stimulating conditions. 
 In humans, the inflowing stream of sights, sounds, noises, smells, 
 touches -- and most importantly, language and eye contact -- literally 
 makes the brain take shape. It is a radical and shocking concept. 

 Experience in the first year of life lays the basis for networks of neurons
 that enable us to be smart, creative and adaptable in all the years that
 follow, said Dr. Esther Thelen, a neurobiologist at Indiana University in

 The brain is a self-organizing system, Dr. Thelen said, whose many parts
 co-operate to produce coherent behavior. There is no master program
 pulling it together but rather the parts self-organize. "What we know
 about these systems is that they are very sensitive to initial conditions,"
 Dr. Thelen said. "Where you are now depends on where you've been." 

 The implication for infant development is clear. Given the explosive
 growth and self-organizing capacity of the brain in the first year of life,
 the experiences an infant has during this period are the conditions that set
 the stage for everything that follows. 

 In later life, what make us smart and creative and adaptable are networks
 of neurons which support our ability to use abstractions from one memory
 to help form new ideas and solve problems, said Dr. Charles Stevens, a
 neurobiologist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Smarter people may
 have a greater number of neural networks that are more intricately woven
 together, a process that starts in the first year. 

 The complexity of the synaptic web laid down early may very well be the
 physical basis of what we call general intelligence, said Lazar at
 Vanderbilt. The more complex that set of interconnections, the brighter
 the child is likely to be since there are more ways to sort, file and access

 Of course, brain development "happens" in stimulating and dull
 environments. Virtually all babies learn to sit up, crawl, walk, talk, eat
 independently and make transactions with others, said Dr. Steve Petersen,
 a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
 Such skills are not at risk except in rare circumstances of sensory and
 social deprivation, like being locked in a closet for the first few years of

 Subject to tremendous variability within the normal range of
 environments are the abilities to perceive, conceptualize, understand,
 reason, associate and judge. The ability to function in a technologically
 complex society like ours does not simply "happen." 

 One implication of the new knowledge about infant brain development is
 that intervention programs like Headstart may be too little, too late, Lazar
 said. If educators hope to make a big difference, he said, they will need to
 develop programs for children from birth to 3. 

 Dr. Bettye Caldwell, a professor of pediatrics and an expert in child
 development at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, who supports
 the importance of early stimulation said that in early childhood education
 there is a strong bias against planned intellectual stimulation. Teachers of
 very young children are taught to follow "developmentally appropriate
 practices," she said, which means that the child chooses what he or she
 wants to do. The teacher is a responder and not a stimulator. 

 Asked about the bias Dr. Caldwell described, Matthew Melmed, executive
 director of Zero to Three, a research and training organization for early
 childhood development in Washington, D.C., said that knowing how much
 stimulation is too much or too little, especially for infants, is "a really
 tricky question. It's a dilemma parents and educators face every day," he

 In a poll released on Wednesday, Zero to Three found that 87 percent of
 parents think that the more stimulation a baby receives the better off the
 baby is, Melmed said. "Many parents have the concept that a baby is
 something you fill up with information and that's not good," he said. 

 "We are concerned that many parents are going to take this new
 information about brain research and rush to do more things with their
 babies, more activities, forgetting that it's not the activities that are
 important. The most important thing is connecting with the baby and
 creating an emotional bond," Melmed said. 

 There is some danger of overstimulating an infant, said Dr. William
 Staso, a school psychologist from Orcutt, Calif., who has written a book
 called "What Stimulation Your Baby Needs to Become Smart." Some
 people think that any interaction with very young children that involves
 their intelligence must also involve pushing them to excel, he said. But the
 "curriculum" that most benefits young babies is simply common sense,
 Staso said. It does not involve teaching several languages or numerical
 concepts but rather carrying out an ongoing dialogue with adult speech.
 Vocabulary words are a magnet for a child's thinking and reasoning skills.

 This constant patter may be the single most important factor in early brain
 development, according to Dr. Betty Hart, a professor emeritus of human
 development at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. With her colleague,
 Dr. Todd Ridley of the University of Alaska, Dr. Hart recently coauthored
 a book -- Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young
 American Children. 

 The researchers studied 42 children born to professional, working class or
 welfare parents. During the first two and half years of the children's lives,
 the scientists spent an hour a month recording every spoken word and
 every parent-child interaction in every home. For all the families, the
 data include 1,300 hours of everyday interactions, Dr. Hart said, involving
 millions of ordinary utterances. 

 At age 3, the children were given standard tests. The children of
 professional parents scored highest. Spoken language was the key variable,
 Dr. Hart said. 

 A child with professional parents heard, on average, 2,100 words an hour.
 Children of working-class parents heard 1,200 words and those with
 parents on welfare heard only 600 words an hour. Professional parents
 talked three times as much to their infants, Dr. Hart said. Moreover, 
 children with professonal parents got positive feedback 30 times an hour -- 
 twice as often as working-class parents and five times as often as welfare 

 The tone of voice made a difference, Dr. Hart said. Affirmative feedback
 is very important. A child who hears, "What did we do yesterday? What
 did we see?" will listen more to a parent than will a child who always
 hears "Stop that," or "come here!" 

 By age two, all parents started talking more to their children, Dr. Hart
 said. But by age two, the differences among children were so great that
 those left behind could never catch up. The differences in academic
 achievement remained in each group through primary school. 

 Every child learned to use language and could say complex sentences but
 the deprived children did not deal with words in a conceptual manner, she

 A recent study of high-quality daycare found the same thing. Children
 who were talked to at very young ages were better at problem solving
 later on. 

 For an infant, Dr. Hart said, all words are novel and worth learning. The
 key to brain development seems to be the rate of early learning -- not so
 much what is wired but how much of the brain gets interconnected in
 those first months and years.

April 17, 1997

The Growing Brain: What Might Help Your

     r. William Staso, an expert in neurological development. suggests
     that different kinds of stimulation should be emphasized at different
     ages. At all stages, parental interaction and a conversational
dialogue with the child are important. Here are some examples: 

FIRST MONTH: A low level of stimulation reduces stress and increases
the infant's wakefulness and alertness. The brain essentially shuts down
the system when there is overstimulation from competing sources. When
talking to an infant, for example, filter out distracting noises, like a radio. 

MONTHS 1 TO 3: Light/dark contours, like high-contrast pictures or
objects, foster development in neural networks that encode vision. The
brain also starts to discriminate among acoustic patterns of language, like
intonation, lilt and pitch. Speaking to the infant, especially in an animated
voice, aids this process. 

MONTHS 3 TO 5: The infant relies primarily on vision to acquire
information about the world. Make available increasingly complex
designs that correspond to real objects in the baby's environment; motion
also attracts attention. A large-scale picture of a fork, moved across the
field of vision, would offer more stimulation than just an actual fork. 

MONTHS 6 TO 7: The infant becomes alert to relationships like cause
and effect, the location of objects and the functions of objects.
Demonstrate and talk about situations like how the turning of a doorknob
leads to the opening of a door. 

MONTHS 7 TO 8: The brain is oriented to make associations between
sounds and some meaningful activity or object. For example, parents can
deliberately emphasize in conversation that the sound of water running in
the bathroom signals an impending bath, or that a doorbell means a

MONTHS 9 TO 12: Learning adds up to a new level of awareness of the
environment and increased interest in exploration; sensory and motor
skills coordinate in a more mature fashion. This is the time to let the child
turn on a faucet or a light switch, under supervision. 

MONTHS 13 TO 18: The brain establishes accelerated and more complex
associations, especially if the toddler experiments directly with objects. A
rich environment will help the toddler make such associations, understand
sequences, differentiate between objects and reason about them.