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Posted at 12:10 PM ET, 11/ 2/2009

Willingham: What the research really says about Baby Einsteins

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don't Students Like School" and other books.

By Daniel Willingham
By now, you’ve likely heard that the Baby Einstein company is offering a refund for its DVDs, a move widely interpreted as a way of avoiding a class-action lawsuit over the company’s claim that the DVDs are educational.

In a recent statement, the Baby Einstein company (which is owned by Disney) claims that they never said that Baby Einstein DVDs make infants or toddlers smarter. Maybe not. It might take some Clintonian dissection of semantics to get to that conclusion. The brand name not only uses "Einstein," but other products are named after Wordsworth, Galileo, and Da Vinci.

The company has blandly claimed that the offer of a no-questions-asked, receipt-free refund is not an admission of a problem, but merely an “enhanced consumer satisfaction guarantee.”

I’m no attorney, but I suspect that if I approached Disney with a 4-year-old coffee-stained Mickey Mouse doll and said, "I’m not really satisfied; could you please enhance your guarantee?" I’d walk out of the store with my doll, not with a refund.

I don’t think the Baby Einstein company needed to make strong claims about education to get parents to think that the DVDs were educative. Many parents already believe that visual stimulation and classical music (which the DVDs offer in spades) have been shown to help brain development.

Both beliefs are based on solid research that has been twisted out of shape. Classic research from the 1950s on the visual system shows that when a kitten is provided only limited visual stimulation, the system does not develop normally.

Other research shows that this finding very likely applies to humans, so visual stimulation is important to brain development. But the fact that deprivation is bad for the system doesn’t mean that extra stimulation will improve it. The average infant’s visual environment is rich enough that extra visual stimuli, as found in Baby Einstein DVDs are not necessary for a healthy visual system to develop.

Another classic study from the 1960s showed that rats raised in an enriched environment (with ladders to climb, tubes to explore, and so on) showed greater brain development than controls.

Studies in the last forty years have indicated reliable effects from enriched environments, but note that these environments have always included mental activity--the animal (or person) has something to think about, not merely something to watch.

The other commonly accepted myth is that classical music is a special type of stimulus that can make babies smart.

This belief stems from a finding in the early 1990’s that college students who listened to a Mozart sonata got a brief boost in certain spatial reasoning tasks. Somehow, in the public mind that effect turned into "Classical music makes babies smarter."

In actuality, several other researchers tried to repeat the experiment, which sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Later research indicated that the effect, when observed, was probably not due to Mozart, but due to an increase in arousal or mood. Recent research has specifically tested the effects of videos designed for toddlers and have not observed a positive effect.

Other recent research has shown that the problem may not be particular to the videos of one or another company: it appears that children under 2 years are less apt to learn from video than older children are.

Whether or not the Baby Einstein company over-promised in their marketing is a question that should be asked.

Posing that question should not, however, cause us to lose sight of another question: How can science reporting and education be improved so that consumers will not be susceptible to subtle marketing campaigns that play on misunderstandings of scientific findings?

By Valerie Strauss  | November 2, 2009; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Early Childhood, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Baby Einstein, Daniel Willingham, brain development  
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Posted by: DanielTWillingham | November 2, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

The kind of visual and environmental stimuli babies need comes from interaction w/parents or caregivers, and exposure to the natural (not video) world. If the brain is like a computer (not an analogy I like, but can be useful), then the job in the first years is not to stuff it w/data, like Baby Einstein videos or flash cards or LeapFrog, but to "write the programs" -- IOW, lay down the synapses that will allow the child to process data in a meaningful way. And the way you do that is to talk to your kid, take them for walks in the park, point out the birds and the leaves falling, sing silly songs with them -- INTERACT!!! Not parking them in front of a video or any other screen.

Posted by: johnsondeb | November 2, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

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