There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center have used MRI scanners to find a Goldilocks effect in how children react to being read to:

For a small 2018 study involving 27 children around the age of 4, the researchers watched how the young brains responded to different stimuli. As with the first bowl of porridge that Goldilocks finds in the house of the Three Bears, the sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

Just as Goldilocks sighs with relief when she takes a spoonful from the third bowl of porridge and finds that it is “just right,” so a small child can relax into the experience of being read a picture book. There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life — a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.

By contrast, fast-paced TV shows have been shown to impair executive function in young children after as little as nine minutes of viewing. Nor is that the only tech-related downside. Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to our electronic devices, that’s what will draw their gaze too. What they see may not be what we want them to see. As the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has written: “Babies are often distressed when they look to their parent for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.”


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I find television, movies and most other media ‘too hot’ just as the child does. The rapid fire scene changes drive me crazy as there is no time to absorb the ram-rodded content. Give me the old shows shot with a single camera angle for minutes at a time. I haven’t had an antenna or cable attached to my tv for over 25 years. I do some streaming, but mostly I read history.

  2. Kirk says:

    I dunno about “hot”. My problem is that most movies are not “dense” enough–There’s too little content there to keep me interested, and if the content doesn’t make sense, or takes me out of the experience, well… They lose me. I had to get up and walk out of Avatar because the suspension of disbelief was just too great. About the time you start recognizing things like “Hey, this is Dances with Blue Wolves…”, I’m out of there. If it was possible to do with a movie what I have done with horrible books, and “wall” the damn things, I’d have done that. As is, I got up, asked for a refund, and left. Cameron lost me on that one, completely.

    I’m also rather tired of the “White male bad” theme that seems to permeate the whole of modern entertainment. Here’s what I’m thinking: You keep demonizing the “White Male” demographic, the majority of those guys making up that demographic are gonna wake up one day, and their thoughts are going to run like this: “Ya know… I’m gonna get blamed for rape, plunder, and oppression anyway… I do believe I’m gonna go get me some, if only so I know what I’m being crucified for…”.

    Density. It’s what I want in my entertainment. Something like the Malazan Book of the Dead is about my speed for something that’s gonna hold my attention for more than a couple of hours. The average 300-page novel is only good for about two-three hours for me, so what I really want is a well-written doorstop of a book/series. The usual lightweight crap just doesn’t cut it.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I’m reminded of one of the “Chinese” values promoted by Ni Hao, Kai-Lan:

    Typically, television portrays excitement as the good emotion to feel. In many Chinese-American communities, the good thing to feel is often calmness and contentment. Feeling excited and feeling calm can both be happy feelings, but they differ in how aroused the body is.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    I think the calmness thing is more the Buddhist influence, and Confucianism is more about repressing emotions than choosing them. That’s just my general impression. They certainly don’t phrase it in such terms, because they don’t actually talk about it much at all. Few humans question their own culture, if they’re even aware of it as such.

    I never cared for Smurfs in Space myself.

  5. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Kirk. Lack of density is a good way to describe modern entertainment. I’ve tried to watch shows people talk about, but 10 minutes in I’m bored or mad. Most themes are ‘how stupid can a white guy be?’ or non-stop juvenile insults. Nature shows generally suck too. Besides the scenery, they offer nothing since it’s all the same thing…breeding and eating while the narrator pushes global warming. Bread and circuses.

  6. David Foster says:

    This relates to some ideas suggested by Neal Stephenson and which I expanded on in this post:

  7. CVLR says:


    The rapid fire scene changes drive me crazy as there is no time to absorb the ram-rodded content. Give me the old shows shot with a single camera angle for minutes at a time.

    Have I a movie for you.

  8. Wang Wei Lin says:


    Thanks. Who would have thought a gun fight could be so relaxing? I’ll watch the whole movie.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. CVLR says:

    Merry Christmas, Wang.

    And to everyone else as well.

  10. O Bloody Hell says:

    Interestingly, I tie this to MTV.

    There are four different major segmentations to modern media (i.e., movies).

    The first is categorically obvious: Sound. The style of acting, the modes of presentation, all the related aspects of modern film tie into that change — the addition of sound radically alters the mechanism by which media is carried and absorbed. Films before sound and after are radically different.

    The second was “method acting”, usually associated with Marlon Brando and either A Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront… Acting before this was usually “to type” — blondes were good girls, brunettes were bad girls. Certain guys were tough, rugged sort, others were prissy and not leading men (There was also “casting against type”, but that was a minority of film).
    Again, with the changes in the manner in which acting was done, Method Acting, ca. 1951, was another transition point for film.

    The third one is also pretty obvious, once suggested: The MPAA. The films made before the MPAA and movie ratings vs. the old “Hayes Code” films are generally very different, with much more range in both topics and in content, making 1967 or thereabouts a third major transition point.

    The last one, so far, was, oddly enough, MTV. Yes, “Music Television”. MTV introduced a great deal of visual shorthand, a lot of “quick cut” styles, and a faster visual pacing to audiences. This took a lot longer to change things — MTV began in 1980, and film had not consistently changed until around 1990 — many films done during the 80s themselves can fall into either camp.

    But this last one has also created a major “watchability gap” for people — older people have a harder time watching new films — too fast, too frenetic, too much “banging and booming”. Meanwhile, younger people have a hard time slowing themselves down to deal with the slower pacing and less visually intense style of older movies. Older people need to (if they wish to not get stuck in the past) cultivate a more flexible watching ability, while younger people need (if they wish to learn to appreciate “the classics”) to learn to practice more patience.

  11. Bruce says:

    Mencken was complaining about ‘quick cuts’ in 1930 movies. And he was right. When you overdo the quick cuts it’s like rigging a stereo to give off static when you max the volume. Or speeding up the film to make everyone jerk around all manic. On the other hand, I don’t like slow-paced, old-fashioned movies.

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