Since 1969, “Sesame Street” has been introducing small children to letters and numbers by using clever skits and songs performed by Muppets and celebrities. Patrick Stewart, for instance, reworked Hamlet’s soliloquy as an ode to the letter B (“B or not a B, that is the question”). Now a report by two economists, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, has tracked the first generation of watchers (who were under six in 1969). It reveals that children who had access to “Sesame Street” ended up better prepared for school and were 14% less likely to fall behind in class.
The show’s effects are not unlike those of Head Start, a federal scheme that provides poor families with services that include school-based early education. But it costs a fraction as much, says Ms Kearney. “Sesame Street” is not a replacement for early education, which most studies agree is vital; but it is certainly a very affordable supplement. “In essence,” she says, thinking of massive open online courses, “Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”
Did you know that you're 13 times more likely to laugh if you're with somebody else than if you're alone? Cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott shares this and other surprising facts about laughter in this fast-paced, action-packed and, yes, hilarious dash through the science of the topic.
Above all, it seems to me, we face two entwined questions every time we reach towards a screen. What does the computer want us to do—and what do we ourselves want? If we’re not careful, we will only ever answer the first. Ours is a world in which we are nudged, cajoled, bribed, and enticed ceaselessly; in which we are locked in an embrace with tirelessly fascinating tools. More than ever, we must be prepared to admit how messily personal this relationship is; how toxic habit and excessive ease can be; and that, as in all relationships, the easiest and the best option are rarely the same thing.
As the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman once put it, “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” If we’re not careful, our days will become a sequence of answers to questions that aren’t worth asking: what do you like, dislike, think in 140 characters; how can a friend most efficiently be acknowledged or dismissed; what distraction might help you forget the life you forgot to lead?