THE WONDER YEARS

Changing Brains
www.changingbrains.org
DVD ($9.95); or watch it online for free

The most exciting moments in a brain’s lifetime happen in early childhood. The film Changing Brains, produced by scientists from the University of Oregon’s Brain Development Lab, details how parents, teachers and caretakers can help shape the young brain by understanding how it develops and which activities promote learning.

Changing Brains explains that at age two, a toddler has twice as many neuron connections as an adult. As a child experiences the world, these connections are pruned away—the growing brain strengthens and maintains only the circuits most important for intellect and skills. In this way, a child’s daily activities, such as coloring or listening to a bedtime story, actively mold the brain.

The film sometimes feels dry, but it is worth watching because it explores a range of intriguing topics using smart analogies and descriptions. For instance, the narrator explains that a living brain has the consistency of room-temperature butter and that at birth a baby already recognizes its mother’s voice. Babies can also differentiate between two sounds from any language—something no adult can do, because the ability to recognize subtle phonetic differences in languages other than one’s own disappears with age.

The film's most important message is that boosting a child’s intellectual growth doesn’t have to be all about formal lessons; parents and other caregivers foster brain development just by taking walks to the park or playing peek-a-boo and tag. “Playing not only strengthens muscles, it strengthens the connections in the brain,” the narrator says. “Infants don’t come into the world ready to sit still and listen; they need time to develop these abilities.” —Corey Binns