Many infant DVDs are hawked with dubious information about time-limited opportunities for learning. Some products prey on parental fears, invoking the specter of infant brain-cell death. Charles Zorn, a neuropsychological education specialist, told me that he often has to reassure parents that brain-cell counts are not a measure of a child’s intelligence, knowledge, or ability to learn. The brain deliberately makes too many, then lets a bunch wither; which ones wither depends on the environment the newborn encounters. Cell death is actually part of the development process. “When you learn to read, you are killing cells to create a pathway,” Zorn says. Indeed, reducing infant brain-cell death is counterproductive; cell death is a way the nervous system refines its circuits.
But nervous parents are not inclined to make such fine distinctions. And the industry does its best to blur these distinctions anyway. “Parents know about that preschool window of opportunity—it’s very narrow,” says Dennis Fedoruk of Brainy Baby. “Parents want to maximize results in their children without causing their children trouble. Listen, you can’t turn back the hands of time. Once they enter kindergarten, they can’t have the window of opportunity any longer. It’s too late.”
Karen Foster, CEO and founder of Athletic Baby, points to Tiger Woods as she tells me that her Athletic Baby Golf and Athletic Baby All-Star DVDs help parents give their kids a head start. “Everyone has heard about Tiger’s imprinting from an early age by his father,” she says. “The earlier the age, the more successful they will be.” Foster gives the standard edutainment-complex line: if infant deprivation yields negative effects, these “enriching” products must inversely produce a positive effect.
“BabyPlus helps with imprinting,” claims Brent Logan, CEO of BabyPlus. “And soon, the imprinting window shuts off for the pre-infants.” These pitches could make most any parent nervous. (“I do believe that the brain has a certain clump of neurons firing, and that by the time [my baby] is five, it will be too late,” one woman, an educated professional who consumes these products avidly, told me. “It sounds panicky, I know, but if those neurons are dying off … You have to get in there during the first three years. If my baby doesn’t use it, with a stimulating game or class, he is going to lose it.”) But are these pitches accurate? To start answering this question, one needs to separate the popular ideas of “crucial stages” and “imprinting” and “brain plasticity—which is today’s scientized buzzword for “ability to learn—from the science and cultural history underlying them.
Americans have long sought to control natural processes, demonstrating both our faith in the human ability to harness nature and our obsession with using time shrewdly. When the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget toured American universities in the 1950s, describing the cognitive stages children pass through as they mature, audience members wanted to know how they could make their children go through those stages faster. (Piaget was not pleased.) In the last decade or so, this emphasis on early development has been touted by celebrity foundations like Rob Reiner’s Parents’ Action for Children, whose slogan is “The first years last forever.” This, coupled with the findings of several studies and an aggressive federal information campaign, has generated rising awareness of the crucial zero-to-three period.
But recently scholars have cast doubt on this time frame as an absolute. William Greenough, whose much-publicized studies of brain development in rats in the eighties helped pave the way for the current obsessions with sensory stimulus in infants, is a vehement critic of the new overemphasis on early learning. His research supports the idea that the brain continues to be plastic—still developing—after infancy. Indeed, many neuroscientists now deny that even adult brains lose plasticity.
“It’s important to point out that windows of development do not slam shut, as the earliest versions of [Parents’ Action for Children] and the Birth to Three movement suggested,” says Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis. One implication of that claim, he says, is that “when the development windows are thought to slam shut, parents may feel that the case is closed, and must try again with the next child.”
Schlaggar and many of the other neurologists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and child-development specialists I spoke with questioned the idea that educational toys or DVDs accomplish what their makers claim. In a study by a University of Massachusetts researcher, a sample group of infants learned to use a puppet from a live teacher, while another group studied a video. The tots who had a teacher learned to use the puppet immediately, but the infant video-watchers had to view the instruction six times before they learned the same skill. As Charles Nelson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a preeminent scholar of the infant brain, puts it, “There is no proof of the value of the early-enrichment toys and videos in terms of brain science.”
A number of scholars also argue that the idea of hard-and-fast “critical periods” is overplayed. For one thing, there is a difference between brain functions that are “experience-expectant” (which are bound by critical periods), and those that are “experience-dependent” (which are not). For instance, the brain requires that the eyes be exposed to light so that vision can develop properly. This must take place at a particular point in the development of all infants—it is experience-expectant. Experience-dependent learning, by contrast, is environmentally conditioned—learning a language or an instrument, or making a dumpling. This sort of learning is less governed by time. As John Bruer, an education consultant and the author of The Myth of the First Three Years, puts it, “critical periods are less likely for traits and behaviors … that are unique to the experiences of individuals, social groups, or cultures.”
According to Fred Dick, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and a lecturer in psychology at the University of London, starting early to learn a second or even third language can be a good thing. But “early” doesn’t mean in infancy. Furthermore, language-study DVDs tend to offer only disconnected words, and typically a child must be exposed to a language continuously to acquire it. Teaching a language to two or more children in person, at any age, may well be preferable to using videos, because a normal environment with another child “holds more information than any multimedia film,” Dick says. Studies have shown that the ability to learn the grammar of a second language doesn’t begin to decline until puberty—quite a while after the age of three.