Want to Excel? Concentrate, Baby



A pint-sized study participant wearing an electroencephalogram cap -- a non-invasive way to measure brain activity. Photo by Sam Wass.

A new study suggests babies trained to concentrate spend more time focusing on the task at hand, which could help them learn all kinds of new skills.

Researchers from the University of London in the U.K studied 42 11-month-old babies, half of whom were trained to concentrate by animated computer programs, while the other half watched regular TV. After 15 days, the babies were put to the test. Trained babies were better at focusing on a task, like interacting with a parent, and ignoring distractions, like puppets.

“Whenever there’s movement, our attention gets drawn to it,” said study author Sam Wass of the University of London’s Center for Brain and Cognitive Development. “The better you are at saying, ‘No, that movement isn’t interesting; I want stay focused on this,’ the better you’re going to do.”

Because their brains are still developing, babies have a remarkable ability to form new neural connections — known as plasticity.

“The older you get, the less plastic your brain is,” Wass said. Think about a house: “If you start putting in alterations while the foundation’s being built, it’s easier than doing it after the house is finished.”

Mastering concentration can help children hone other skills, like reading, Wass said. But it’s unclear how long the effects of his 15-day computer-based training program will persist. Furthermore, most experts agree that tots’ TV and computer time should be kept to a minimum.

Wass said there are things parents can do daily to cultivate concentration in wee brains without serious screen time.

“There’s evidence that engaging in set tasks, like sitting and doing a puzzle with your child is a way of training to concentrate,” he said. “The infant can use the caregiver’s attention capacity as a sort of scaffold, training them to pay attention over longer periods of time.”