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One More Reason to Unplug Before Bedtime

Reading a bedtime story improves a child's brain function and mental imagery.

Source: Conrado/Shutterstock

We all know from first-hand experience that the digital age has most of us "plugged in" 24/7. What is the detrimental impact on parents and children of being "plugged in" to digital devices—or in front of a television screen—both day and night?

New studies show that turning off the television, unplugging other digital devices, and reading a book before bedtime can: improve a child's brain function, mental imagery, imagination, theory of mind (ToM), and make a child more empathetic.

Dr. John Hutton MD, is a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's. He's part of a growing coalition of pediatricians who are encouraging families to "unplug" and spend more time playing outside and reading books together. Hutton is the owner of a local children's bookstore in his hometown and is on a mission to promote a simpler life with less screen time.

Hutton has written a series of Baby Unplugged books which celebrate the benefits of traditional parent-child experiences—like reading a bedtime story—which might seem ‘old-fashioned’ to some, but have timeless benefits that have been confirmed by the latest neuroscience.

Among the advice that Hutton gives new parents is to read books to their babies early and often. His research shows that when parents, or a caregiver, read a book to a child that it helps develop language skills, literacy, and mental imagery at a neurobiological level.

In a recent study, Hutton and his colleagues used fMRI whole-brain imaging to study the benefits of parents reading to young children. They found significant differences in brain activity when compared to children who weren't exposed to cognitive stimulation in the home.

Dr. Hutton presented his findings in a lecture titled, "Parent-Child Reading Increases Activation of Brain Networks Supporting Emergent Literacy in 3-5 Year-Old Children: An fMRI Study" at the April 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego. In a press release, Hutton said,

We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child's brain processes stories and may help predict reading success. Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination.

Parent-Child Reading Helps Children Use Imagination to "See the Story"

Melanie DeFazio/Shutterstock
Source: Melanie DeFazio/Shutterstock

For this study, Dr. Hutton and his colleagues studied 19 healthy preschoolers ages 3-5 years old. Thirty-seven percent of the children in the study were from low-income households. Before the study, each child's primary caregiver was asked to fill out a questionnaire that measured cognitive stimulation in the home.

The questionnaire focused on three areas: parent-child reading, including access to books, frequency of reading and variety of books read; parent-child interaction, including talking and playing; and whether parents taught specific skills such as counting and shapes.

During this experiment, the children had a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan which measured brain activity while they were listening to age-appropriate stories on headphones. The children were awake during the scan and there was no outside visual stimulus. Interestingly, the researchers found that brain areas used to support mental imagery showed particularly strong activation during storytelling.

The findings of this study suggest that visualization plays a key role in narrative comprehension and reading readiness. The visualization of a story literally allows children to "see" the story cinematically by using their imagination.

"This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text," Dr. Hutton said. The positive associations between home reading exposure and brain activity remained consistent after controlling for household income.

Reading Fiction Activates Brain Regions Linked to Empathy

Recently, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic? The post is based on a study from Carnegie Mellon University which found that reading a chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” lit up the same brain regions that would be involved in watching someone moving—or flying on a broom—in the real world.

The November 2014 study, “Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses," was published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

The neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon mapped the brain while people read fiction and found that the same brain networks are engaged while imagining a fictional story in your mind’s eye as when you witness it in real life.

When you are engaged in reading a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters in the story at a neurobiological level which can make children more empathetic to another person's pain and suffering.

Watching Too Much Television Weakens Theory of Mind

A November 2013 paper titled, “The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers,” was published in the Journal of Communication.

The researchers of the study found that preschoolers who have a TV in their bedroom and are exposed to more background TV have a weaker understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, as well as, reduced cognitive development.

The average American home currently has 2.86 TV sets, which is roughly 18% higher than in the year 2000 (2.43 sets per home), and 43% higher than in 1990 (2.0 sets). In America, there are currently more televisions per home than human beings. On average, children under the age of 8 spend over 90 minutes a day watching television or DVDs.

Nearly 33% of American children live in a household where the television is on all or most of the time. Children between the ages 8-18 years old watch an average of three hours of television a day. On average, 61% of children under two use some type of screen technology and 43% watch television every day.

One of the problems of watching too much TV is that it reduces theory of mind. Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.

Conclusion: Bedtime Stories Improve Mental Imagery and Semantic Processing

Unplugging digital devices and bonding with your children over a bedtime story is strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas that support the semantic processing required to extract meaning from language. Developing these brain regions is critical for oral communication and literacy. If you are a parent and need one more reason to unplug at bedtime, hopefully these findings will inspire you.

"We hope that this work will guide further research on shared reading and the developing brain to help improve interventions and identify children at risk for difficulties as early as possible, increasing the chances that they will be successful in the wonderful world of books," Dr. Hutton concluded.

Below is a YouTube video that tells more about Dr. Hutton's "Unplug" campaign:

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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