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My dear reader, I read a fascinating article (in Hungarian) a few weeks ago (which was accessible here in Hungarian but since the publication of this text, is has become unavailable – sorry for the inconvenience) that I found so interesting that I’d like to make it accessible for a different community here in my English translation as well.

Hüther,Gerald_08.jpg.5154300It is an interview with leading German neuropsychologist Gerald Hüther (some more information and another interview with him in English here). The original interview may have been in German, so apologies for perhaps deviating from the original meanings at points. It is also long, so I’m going to deliver it in three parts over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to insert my own ideas at places where I find it appropriate as I’m not only interested in, but also involved with young children’s development, especially as regards their language, social and creative development, being closely involved in my co-author’s children’s lives.

What goes on in children’s brains when they are watching television?

In the latest edition of GEOkompakt, devoted to child-development psychology, professor Gerald Hüther, one of the best-known German brain researchers and neuropsychologists explains what goes on in the minds of children who watch television or play with the computer very much.

“Professor, as a neurobiologist, you research how the media affect human brain development. Could you recommend to us a good TV program or a computer game for Children?

“No, and such recommendations would not help us any further. This is because in that way we would only get mired in a superficial conversation about the content quality of the supply; however, it is better to avoid that. On the other hand, you do not need to look for very long: you can quickly find five studies which show you how good watching television is for children, allegedly.

In contrast to this, however, another five studies will prove that TV is bad. This discussion is completely useless for parents. I do not talk about content, I approach the question from much further away.

A few years ago, we neurobiologists still thought that the genetic programs automatically set up all connections in the brain. Therefore, the complex neuronal networks, which direct the ways we think, feel, act, were thought to be genetically programmed. It is now known, however, that in the long run, only those relationships are created in the child’s mind which are regularly activated in real life. What is not used, withers away. (me: And so it is with adults too.) The genetic programs ensure that at first large surpluses of neuron-links get created.

For the creation of the most important neuronal circuits in the brain, children need to experience their own bodies first of all. And this is not acquired sitting before the screen independently of what goes on on TV.

“Why are bodily experiences so definitive?”

“Only those can fully develop their cognitive abilities in whom the appropriate feelings of their own bodies mature. There already exist studies which prove that those young children who are good at mathematics are especially capable of balancing too. One obtains the capabilities necessary for three-dimensional and abstract thinking and for mathematics that he learns to keep his body in balance. As a child is sitting in front of the TV, he no longer feels his body. He does not climb, does not jump, does not balance, or does not climb a tree, i.e. he does not pass the time by learning his body.

“So children should keep moving as much as possible?”

“Yes, but they do not necessarily have to climb mountains. Singing is one of the most extraordinary practices to learn our bodies. In doing this, in fact, the child’s mind has to direct  his vocal chords in such a virtuosic manner as to bring out the very exactly appropriate sound. This is the best fine motorneuoronic practice and, at the same time, this is the condition of all future, very differentiated  manners of thinking.

On top of this, we can speak of a very complex creative performance with singing. This is because the child has to bear in his mind the whole song so as to be able to hit the correct sound at the correct time. Besides, he also learns to adapt to the others in the chorus, which is one of the conditions of social competence.

Without fear

Without fear

Moreover, children also experience something wonderful, namely that we are not able to be afraid when we are singing. Neurobiologists now know that during free singing, the brain is not able to mobilise the feeling of fear. This is why, going down to the cellar, man has been singing for thousands of years  and not because he wants to scare the mice away.

“Where do such experiences condense, where are the neuronal circuits formed?”

Trying to find out how it works/1

Trying to find out how it works/1

“In the most complicated part of our brains, in the so-called pre-frontal lobe. It is located right behind the forehead. That is where our idea of ourselves evolves. And at the same time, this is also where the urge to turn to the world also evolves, the urge to plan actions, to control impulses and to bear frustration.

This has to be formed in early childhood, until around the age of 6. The networks in the frontal lobe responsible for all this, however, will only evolve if the child acquires this experience. Such experience, in its turn, results primarily from dealing with things that he can make sense of and is able to manipulate. This, however, is more and more difficult today.

“What is the cause of this?”

Trying to find out how it works/2

Trying to find out how it works/2

“The children’s world has changed just as much as that of adults. We are not able to understand any more how our household articles actually work. Formerly this was otherwise. Each object was understandable, the bicycle, the steam engine, even the car. A child could take the clock to pieces, he could study the cogwheels on the inside, and in this way he could uncover the mechanism behind it. Today, in the days of the information society, things may be so complex that very often we fint it hard, or impossible, to understand the cause and the effect.

“How does it all affect the child’s mind?”

“Our brain always adapts to what we do enthusiastically. In the previous century, people felt enthusiastic about machines, and that was what they identified themselves with. In fact, they even applied this machine-like way of thinking to themselves. This then affects the language: we call our hearts pumps, and we talk about run-down joints, which we then replace.

But now suddenly there is this new era. It will be more and more difficult to comprehend the causes and the effects. For example, why the arrow on the screen moves to the right when the mouse is moved. The lack of this mental connection will lead to children not being interested in causality any more. This is the simple result of human brain development. They seem to learn that they have to accept things without capturing the inherent sense behind them.

It is not only that lots of digital media are not understandable, but in addition, there are very few possibilities for us to get involved in current events actively. A very simple example for this is that we cannot change anything else about a television than choose the program. The first time we put a young child in front of the telly, they even talk to the set. They tell the bunny where the fox is lurking. This means they try to participate actively in the events.

This has been taught to them by their experience so far, without virtual media. After a few weeks of watching TV, however, most kids resign to the fact that they cannot actively get involved in the development of things on-screen and give up, that is, they query a part of their own efficacy.

“This is, however, an important element in the development of a child.”

The strength of our inside urge - a toddler choses his own activity against looking at the TV

The strength of our inside urge – a toddler choses his own activity against looking at the TV

“Yes, and this only develops by its own experience in the frontal lobe – as a very complex neuronal network. To expand their knowledge horizon, children have to place their new experiences in a mental context. This is because our brain is only able to learn something if the new impressions are linked to an existing pattern which originate in previous experience. This is an exceptionally creative process.

Therefore, the child will try to suit the new to the existing, older patterns. But to do this, he/she will first start looking for things in his/her mind, so to speak. A stage of productive anxiety emerges, until the pattern of stimuli falls in place. And then the chaos is converted into harmony in the brain. This is that particular ‘I see’ experience.

In the meantime, the bonus system is activated. Nerve cells emit “hormones of happiness”. All little experience of our own achievement causes happiness comparable to taking a little cocain and heroin at the same time. In contrast, it is terribly difficult to be actively, creatively involved in watching films. Therefore, it would be preferable if kids did not get into contact with the television or the computer before schooling.

“But we also receive the action in a book ready-made. Reading is also a passive activity.”

“When a child reads, a lot of things go on in the meantime in the brain technically. It puts the letters together into words. The words and sentences are converted into worlds of phantasy. What the child’s brain has read appears before his mind’s eye.

Little Red Riding Hood is walking in the forest. No child sees the letters here. This is an incredible achievement of the brain: to create a picture from black and white. In contrast, a Harry Potter movie is worth nothing. Before you can turn on your imagination, the following image is already there. In fact you are only developed by what you have worked for yourself.”

(me: A proof of this can be considered in the fact that most people watch films to relax, to get out of their own reality, to stop worrying. We may laugh or cry over a film, but we do that because we copy, we are moved at best, not because we take their happiness or sorrows on ourselves. The rare film which is so good that we feel involved is not only rare, but soon becomes obsolete – people get fed up with them; just watch Lars von Trier, or Mike Leigh films – most of them exceptionally good and disturbing films, but never successes at the box office.)

To be followed soon …

by P.S.