TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Teach data literacy in elementary school.

By Mohana Ravindranath in the Washington Post

2. A new app lets kids explore the life and living conditions of other children around the world.

By Laura Bliss in CityLab

3. Politics inside Yemen — once a reliable U.S. ally and success story in the war on terror — has pushed the nation out of our influence.

By Adam Baron in Defense One

4. When it comes to science and health news, radio might save journalism.

By Anna Clark in Columbia Journalism Review

5. Rooftop solar power could beat the price of coal in two years — if utilities don’t shut it down.

By Lucas Mearian in ComputerWorld

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

Rear view of baby girl
Vladimir Godnik—Getty Images

The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–“It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,'” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

TIME viral

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Give an Adorable 6-Year-Old Excellent Life Advice

And then he proceeds to roll on the ground

The great and powerful Neil deGrasse Tyson has some excellent life advice: When the world gives you puddles, jump in them.

When the famed astrophysicist came to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts last week, an adorable 6-year-old girl in an Einstein T-shirt asked what first graders can do to “help the world.”

And his answer is all about exploration. Jumping in puddles, banging on pots and pans — even if your mom and dad aren’t always gung ho about the whole thing.

“Tell your parents Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson said you should jump in the puddle,” he said before doing launching into a roll on the gymnasium floor.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” he said, reading the Einstein quote off the girl’s shirt. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

(h/t: Nerdist)

TIME Television

Suffer the Children: Saying “No Thanks” to TV’s Child-in-Peril Stories

The Missing 2014
Liam Daniel James Nesbitt, Oliver Hunt, and Frances O'Connor in The Missing.

There's nothing wrong with a good story portraying terrible things. But there's no obligation to watch it over and over, either.

Early in the first episode of the Starz miniseries The Missing (premieres Nov. 15), the worst happens, as it does so often on TV these days.

Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) are on holiday in a rural French town in 2006 when their five-year-old son, Oliver (Oliver Hunt), disappears in a crowd. He is, apparently, abducted; as the story flashes forward to 2014, they have never seen him again.

In between, they’ve lived eight years of agony. After the investigation goes cold, they’re left to torment themselves, wondering if Oliver is dead, and if so how, and if not–what might their baby have gone through for eight years, what might he be going through now? It’s hard to say which would be the mercy, but in their present, mercy is a remote concept.

I’ve watched the five episodes that Starz sent me of The Missing (there will be eight in total), and it’s very good, a swift-moving crime thriller that also takes the time to measure the effects of the crime on Tony and Emily’s marriage, their state of mind, and the lives of the French townspeople who were drawn into the investigation and may be again. Tony, who’s become a walking open wound, aching and refusing comfort, has returned to France, chasing another in a series of leads he’s been obsessively pursuing for eight years–only this one seems to pan out.

As he joins with Julien, the now-retired investigator on the original case (Tchéky Karyo), they begin to unravel a timeline and a chain of secrets, drawing closer, but to what, exactly? As the revelations mount, you itch for an answer, and dread it. We’ve trod this grim ground in a lot of British and European crime series lately, but The Missing is adept at showing the wear on the Hugheses and the disorienting nightmare of searching for a lost child in a foreign country. The Missing isn’t great, entirely original, or indispensible, but–I want to be clear and fair here–it’s very good.

And yet. Would I have watched it if it weren’t my job? Hell no.

This is not The Missing‘s fault so much as it is mine. We all have our not-for-me markers with fiction: mine is kids in peril. It’s not that I can’t appreciate, even enjoy a series based on it; Broadchurch, about the aftermath of a child’s murder, was one of the best things I saw on TV last year. But when I’m off the TV-critic clock, these shows need to clear a much higher bar for me. (Which is why I didn’t continue with Broadchurch‘s perfectly decent adaption Gracepoint; once was enough.)

It’s easy to say this and sound sanctimonious. But this isn’t a moral judgment. My squeamishness doesn’t make me a more sensitive soul or a kinder person or a better parent than anyone else. And though I hate shows that use the child-in-peril for easy dramatic stakes, this isn’t a moral judgment on The Missing. This show isn’t cheaply exploitative; just the opposite, it’s highly conscious of what losing a child does to a parent, how it never stops doing damage, even after years. The Missing is well aware of the consequences of its central crime, which is the right thing for the story but all the tougher to take.

In the grand scheme, TV is more authentic, not to mention compelling, when you know that there’s no artificial safety net around topics like endangering children. But Jesus–lately, TV has practically replaced the safety net with a trap door. For a bad crime show, killing or harming a kid can be a lazy way to show that you’re willing to “go there.” But even very good series are now going there, over and over and over.

Kids were collateral damage in Breaking Bad. True Detective led to a ghastly story of ritual child abuse, and it was haunted by the long-ago death of Rust Cohle’s toddler daughter. In Netflix’s excellent British import Happy Valley, the protagonist, who has never recovered from the rape and suicide of her daughter, investigates a grim case that puts other people’s children in mortal danger. In Showtime’s The Affair, not only is Ruth Wilson’s Alison mourning her child, who drowned as a toddler, but in the pilot Dominic West’s Noah witnesses his son’s (simulated) suicide and his daughter’s near-death by choking (which we see twice). Game of Thrones chucked a child out a window in its first episode. The Walking Dead–if you don’t know, don’t ask.

Harming children in a story is never a gentle nudge. It pushes an audience to extreme reactions. The death of a child upends a sense of natural order, it makes the world feel broken. The rage and helplessness it causes makes you want to find someone to blame–the creators who protray the violence, the audiences who enjoy the show. I could probably get more attention for this essay, and plenty of likes, if I gave it one of those finger-wagging headlines that social media loves: “Hey TV, Stop Killing Kids!” or “Sorry, Fans, the Death of a Child is Not Entertainment.”

TV doesn’t owe me that, though. It’s one of fiction’s jobs to face the worst of experience, not to leave an unexplained hole in place of terrible crimes, illnesses and accidents that–would that it were otherwise–do happen. Stories that handle the material with respect and awareness of its lasting consequence do a service; beyond the general role of art to reflect human experience, they provide a kind of emotional disaster preparedness.

But it’s also not anyone’s job as a viewer, or as a human, to face the worst in fiction, much less repeatedly. Again, I get why someone might make this argument. Like real-life violence–see the debate over watching terrorist beheading videos–the outrage that a fictional atrocity provokes makes people want to react morally one way or another. Either it must be a violation to portray this thing, and to watch it; or it must be an obligation, a mark of bravery, to bear witness. The counter-moralizing response to the one I talked about above is: you owe it to others–to real people who suffer and die–to confront this stuff. If you avoid certain kinds of dark material, you’re avoiding life, you’re in denial, you’re a wimp.

I have to side with the wimps here. Earlier this year, after watching a run of particularly unsettling stuff–maybe murders, maybe rapes, who can keep track now–I tweeted, “I watch a lot of disturbing TV. But I totally get ‘I’m tired of [unpleasant thing TK]. TV’s not a chili-pepper-eating contest.” There is no shame in saying: you know what, tonight I think I’ll just have the ice cream.

As for The Missing: if you’re up for an emotionally raw crime story that never lets its thrills hide its emotional repercussions, I can recommend it. And I hope you’re satisfied with the ending, which I will probably not stick around for. Every once in a while, I have to decide that my own nightmares are enough without borrowing someone else’s.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Get Your Kids To Do Some Real Work Around the House

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I owe my handiness to projects I helped my father with as a kid. But my children show no interest in lifting a hammer. How do I motivate them to become capable do-it-themselfers?

A: Thanks to affluenza as well as the draw of computer-based learning, instead of hands-on tutorials, many of today’s young digital natives are sorely lacking in analog skills. We are creating a generation that may never know how to paint a straight line or re-shingle a shed.

The effects are twofold. First, your kids may grow up into adults who, for every household project, are at the mercy of those few capable peers who become handymen and contractors. They’ll pay every time they need to tighten a rattling window or fix the toilet.

Also this lack of hands-on knowledge is—ironically—a contributing factor as to why other countries are outcompeting the United States in science, technology, engineering, and math education, those so-called STEM subjects where many of the good jobs of the future promise to be.

Getting your kids involved with you in safe, age-appropriate DIY projects is a great way to bolster their “spatial awareness,” an understanding of 3D space and how things work that helps later with engineering and physics, according to Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski.

Thus spending a few hours away from their screens helping you build garage shelves or plant flower bulbs can give your kids a leg up on a career in the very technology they love.

Of course, as any parent knows, telling them that may not be enough to motivate them. Yet don’t resort to bribing your kids with a trip to Five Guys or extra screen time to get them to help out, says Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University. That sends the message that the job is an unpleasant one that no child in her right mind would want to do.

You’re better off channeling Tom Sawyer and making the project feel fun and interesting. It helps if you pick an exciting improvement task, such as building a fire-pit, hanging cabinets in the recreation room, or painting the kid’s own bedroom in her choice of color (perhaps from a list preselected by you), rather than a maintenance job like snaking a drain or bleeding the radiators. Older youth may be enticed by the chance to use power tools (with plenty of knowledgeable and safe parental supervision).

Projects with relatively immediate gratification, like painting or laying sod, are more inspiring for young minds. Thus make it a project that they’ll get to enjoy the results of—and do it at a time when distractions like video games and social networking are off limits anyway. Then, let her post photos of the finished work on Facebook, if she wants, to help build her pride and a sense of accomplishment in her work.

 

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to realestate@moneymail.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. “Seven years after returning from Iraq, I’m finally home.” One veteran reflects on how service after his time at war changed his life.

By Chris Miller in Medium

2. Humanity’s gift for imitation and iteration is the secret to our innovation and survival.

By Kat McGowan in Aeon

3. Amid news of a groundbreaking climate agreement, it’s clear the China-U.S. relationship will shape the global future.

By Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian

4. Lessons a year after Typhoon Haiyan: The pilot social safety net in place before Haiyan struck the Philippines helped the country better protect families after the disaster.

By Mohamad Al-Arief at the World Bank Group Social Protection and Labor Global Practice

5. A handful of simple policy reforms — not requiring new funding — can set the table for breaking the cycle of multigenerational poverty.

By Anne Mosle in the Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Research

Study: Laundry Detergent Pods Sending Kids to Hospital Less Frequently

There were 17,000 cases of children coming in contact with products in 2013 and 2012

Laundry detergent pods sent hundreds of children to the hospital after more than 17,000 kids in the U.S. came into contact with them in 2012 and 2013, according to a new study.

At least one of those cases, all children age six and under, resulted in death, Bloomberg reports; 4.4 percent of the cases resulted in hospitalization. The data came from the National Poison Data System, which revealed that the number of exposures to laundry pods increased more than sevenfold between March 2012 and April 2013.

The good news is that the number of children ingesting the products appears to be on the decline. There was a 25 percent decline in the number of cases of that between April and December of last year.

Detergent manufacturers have spent the past two years working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to cut down on accidents, the American Cleaning Institute said in response to the study.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Television

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Early (Sunny) Days of Sesame Street

Sesame Street Cover
Cover Credit: BILL PIERCE The Nov. 23, 1970, cover of TIME

The classic TV show debuted 45 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1969

The history of children’s television changed for good 45 years ago today, on Nov. 10, 1969, when the first episode of Sesame Street aired. Though some adults took a little while to catch on, kids got it right away. Decades later, the show has become a cultural institution, peopled with puppets whose names are known around the world.

But, in the spirit of Sesame, there are still plenty of things to learn. So let’s make like Count von Count and total up five surprising facts from TIME’s coverage of Sesame Street‘s first year:

1. Within its first year, the show scored a hit song: The song? “Rubber Duckie,” natch. Ernie’s anthem debuted in Sesame Street‘s fourth month on the air and, by the time the show made it to the cover of TIME, had spent nine weeks on the charts. Nor did it stop there: “Rubber Duckie” eventually sold over a million singles, and peaked at 16 on the Billboard charts.

2. Richard Nixon was a big fan: In February of 1970, President Richard Nixon sent the show perhaps its most notable piece of fan mail. “The many children and families now benefiting from ‘Sesame Street’ are participants in one of the most promising experiments in educational television in the history of that medium,” he wrote. “The Children’s Television Workshop certainly deserves the high praise it has been getting from young and old alike in every corner of the nation.”

3. Its format was originally inspired by commercials: Though PBS-aired Sesame Street may seem like one of the least commercial TV shows ever — even Kermit the Frog was deemed too commercial to appear on it — it was, ironically, inspired by that profit-minded world. As Children’s Television Workshop executive director Joan Ganz Cooney told TIME the week the show premiered, she realized that the aesthetics of advertising were far more advanced, and more appealing, than the aesthetics of children’s television at the time. “Face it—kids love commercials,” she said. That was why each episode of Sesame Street contained a dozen short spots “advertising” letters, numbers and basic ideas. And the return-on-investment was one that would make any business-minded executive proud: with a budget of $28,000 per episode and an estimated audience for the first season of 7 million preschoolers a day, five days a week, the show cost less than a penny per child.

4. Its educational benefit was immediately measurable — and for good reason: Within the show’s first year on the air, the Children’s Television Workshop commissioned the Educational Testing Service (yes, the folks who bring you the SAT) to study whether it was making a difference. By looking at about 1,000 kids, mostly from disadvantaged families, the study found that the more kids watched Sesame Street the more they knew. A child who watched every weekday would see an average 19% increase in general knowledge. Younger kids, at the low end of the show’s 3- to 5-year-old target demo, were helped even more. In the years between Sesame Street‘s conception and when it finally aired, an education expert spent 18 months studying children’s’ attention spans, interests and eye movements so that the show could maximize the concentration it would get from its viewers. (One finding? No need to waste time with transitioning between segments; kids are fine with jumping from bit to bit with no extra introduction.)

5. Though it’s now one of the most diverse shows on television, Sesame Street had to make changes to get there: The human cast of the first season of Sesame Street was fairly diverse from the get-go — the hosts comprised two white men and a black couple — but it also faced very modern-sounding criticism of the make-up of its staff and cast. The National Organization for Women suggested that its female host should have a job; within a year, she became a nurse. In addition, the show added a Spanish-speaking guest host and, behind the scenes, a female writer.

Read TIME’s 1970 Sesame Street cover story, here in the archives: Who’s Afraid of Big, Bad TV?

TIME Opinion

Is Your Kid Still Eating Halloween Candy? Read This.

What is a parent to do when it comes to squaring off against a bag-full of treats?

It’s Day Seven post-Trick or Treating and while the Halloween costumes are old news, the siren’s call of that big stash of processed sugar goes on. And good luck trying to stand between a child and their yearly candy harvest. It becomes a daily battle that almost always ends with someone near tears. (Usually me.) Is the only course of action left to eat all the candy myself?

I could always blame Jimmy Kimmel. The late night comedian staged his now-annual Halloween prank where he has parents inform their children they ate all their Halloween candy and record the inevitable meltdown. The reactions are both funny and sad, but while some saw the prank as uproarious and others viewed it as a cruel hoax, I thought: Hey, that’s not a bad idea. If the candy just disappeared, the struggle would be over in one fell swoop. Off with the proverbial band-aid and on with the limited intake of sugar. But it’s kind of mean and the ensuing tantrum would not be fun to weather. As a parent, though, do I need to make the healthy choice for my kid, whether he likes it or not?

In general, my kid can usually take or leave sugary junk food, but he spent a lot of energy collecting his plus-sized bag of Halloween treats and seems to view it as his own personal Candy Land version of Mt. Everest. Like a wizened mountaineer, he must surmount it, simply because it’s there. At this point, if the FDA had an RDA, or Recommended Dietary Allowances, of carnauba wax, I assure you, it’s been met as he determinedly makes his way over Mt. CandyCoatedChocolate. He doesn’t care about my equally large mountain of studies showing that while delicious, copious amounts of sugar are simply not healthy.

But what is a parent to do when it comes to squaring off against a bag-full of treats? Some parents are lucky enough to live near wily dentists who will buy Halloween candy for cold hard cash and deliver them to troops via Operation Gratitude. The more organized among us plan in advance with the brilliant Switch Witch gag where a “witch” steals the candy in the middle of the night and switches it out for toys. It’s a great ploy for those of with enough free time to pull it off. (Some of us would pay $2,700 for an extra hour in the day in which to plan a Switch Witch-style swap.)

If a parent doesn’t want to be seen as a real witch, though, what are the options? It’s just us vs. the candy and currently, the corn syrup is winning. At the risk of getting that Frozen song stuck in your head again, should we just let it go? Double up on the vegetables and double down on the flossing and brushing and let the kids eat every last fun-sized morsel and just let the sugar industry win this round, despite the studies that show that sugar is the only cause of tooth decay?

Maybe?

I know it’s something that my hippy mother struggled with when I was a child. Normally we were allowed no processed sweets—seriously, I got a box of sugary cereal from Santa each year, otherwise it was all health food store versions of Cheerios—so Halloween was a bonanza for us and a nightmare for my mother. Each year she had a new approach to the onslaught of sugar. One year we were allowed two pieces a day, which stretched the candy consumption until March and quickly became a supposedly fun-sized thing she would never do again. The next year we were told to eat all we wanted on Halloween and the rest would be done away with, the result being a now-infamous evening of candy-colored vomiting. After that, each year the candy trove seemed to be eaten by the dog, despite the fact that the stash was hidden on a tall shelf in the back of a closet and the dog was an overweight corgi with no vertical lift.

As a parent now, blaming the dog for a disappearing candy hoard doesn’t seem like a bad option at all, but I think I am going to attempt to strike a balance. I’ll let him have a few pieces a day for a few more days, while carefully supervising brushing and flossing and vegetable intake and side-eying a copy of the Year of No Sugar. After a week of daily candy intake, though, it might be time to take a page from my mother’s book and blame the dog when the stash disappears.

And if you don’t have a dog, well, there’s always Jimmy Kimmel to blame.

 

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