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Not if they are under six. At least, not with regards to combining information about spacial location. This is another instance in which something I had barely even noted about Simon, but understood to be a quirk, turns out to reveal a fascinating stage of brain and language development. This time around I have the NPR show Radio Lab to thank for my new knowledge and understanding.

Let me back up a bit. More than once, Matt and I have tried to tell Simon where something is. He’ll say “Where’s my green car?” or the like, and we’ll say, “It’s to the left of the red box” or the like. And then we will watch with confusion and a tiny bit of worry as he fails to find the object.

“No, Simon! To the left!”


“No Simon, to the left of the red box, not the blue one.”

Still nothing.

And so it will go until either we give up and retrieve the object for him, or until Simon stumbles across the object by pure chance. And we are always, always confused by this. He knows his colors. He knows his shapes. He knows right from left and up from down. What the heck is happening here? Is he not listening? Not trying?

As I just learned yesterday, it’s neither of those things. It’s that his brain literally cannot make connections between these two types of information.

It all began with scientists setting lose rats in a rectangular room. Food would be put in a corner, the rat spun, and then the rat set loose to retrieve it. As the room has two long walls and two short ones, two corners looked identical. The rat chose the right corner 50% of the time, just what you would expect. So then the researchers painted one wall blue. And the rat? Still chose the right corner 50% of the time. Rodents, despite having color vision, could not combine the color knowledge with the spacial knowledge.

And neither can kids. A similar experiment was run with children. Babies couldn’t find the object left of the blue wall. Two-year-olds couldn’t do it. Three-year-olds couldn’t do it. It’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t until the sample group was six that they could reliably find the object left of the blue wall.

The neuroscientists’ best guess is that the area of the brain that contains information about objects is in one part of the brain; the area with color is in a second; and the area with directional words a third. These regions are all islands, and it isn’t until a child is six that all the islands are connected. So when Simon is floundering as his confused parents blare the same instructions in an ever louder voice, it’s the adults who need to course correct.

In case that’s not fascinating and unexpected enough, here’s the final zinger. It does not happen that kids learn to connect color with location and then display this knowledge with receptive or expressive language. No, it is that the act of hearing and speaking these commands makes the connections happen. Language, in this instance, does not reflect brain development: It enables it.

I was listening to this piece as I drove back from the mall yesterday. When they hit the climax of the story, the part where kids were on par with rats until they were six, I almost missed my merge onto the expressway on-ramp. It was the exact kind of after-the-fact insight, an aha! into an inchoate observation, that makes NPR the best thing on radio and having a child the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done. Transcript of the entire session may be found online.

One Response to “Is Your Child Smarter Than a Rat? (Quirk or Stage Part II)”

  1. blg says:

    Why listen to the NPR piece when I have you to explain it to me?

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