Current Issue

Oct. 26, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 3

Scientist Dad

Sam Wang takes on a most perplexing topic: your child’s brain

By Ian Shapira ’00
Published in the October 26, 2011, issue

Peter Murphy

On a hot Friday in August, neuroscientist Sam Wang is about to flee the ­basement of Princeton’s molecular biology department for a family vacation, after spending most of the morning ­advising graduate students who were studying the brains of mice that run on treadmills. But before he can escape, he must complete one last bit of brain research: hanging out with his 4-year-old daughter, Vita.

This undertaking comes at the request of a reporter. Wang, along with science writer Sandra Aamodt, is the ­co-author of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, released in September by Bloomsbury USA. The book contains all sorts of ­cocktail-party morsels that will keep parents and expectant parents buzzing, such as: Breastfeeding has little demonstrated influence on a baby’s later intelligence; ­children who practice self-control are more empathetic and show less anger and fear; and babies of depressed pregnant women grow up more vulnerable to stress.

Their new book is a sequel to their 2009 offering, Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, which, by publishing’s standards, was a hit: It has sold more than 170,000 copies worldwide. That book helped catapult Wang (pronounced “Wong”) and Aamodt into The New York Times op-ed pages, where they jointly write occasional essays that tend to go viral. 

In their new book, little Vita pops up as a minor character who likes Mamma Mia show tunes and mimics her dad’s ability to stick his tongue out with the sides curled up. Now it is time to see how a specialist in children’s brains interacts with a child.

His little girl comes rushing in to Wang’s cramped office. He scoops her up for a hug. 

Surrounded by photographs of dog brains and books with titles such as The Axon, Wang sits behind his desk, and she sits in front.

“Vita, could you do something? Will you write me your name?” Wang asks.

Vita scrawls “Ativ” — “Vita” spelled backward. 

Wang’s eyebrows tighten. 

“Vita, what are you doing? You’re writing your name in a crazy way,” he says. 

But just then, Wang’s mind pivots, as if he remembers that he had researched and written about this exact phenomenon in his and Aamodt’s new book: Most children under the age of 5 temporarily experience mirror-image confusion — a state in which the right and left parts of an image are reversed, as if they were reflected in a mirror.

Wang has an idea. He writes Vita’s name spelled backward — “Ativ” — and shows it to his daughter.

“What does that say?” he asks Vita.

She instantly recognizes the word as her own name. “Vita,” she says.

By now, Wang seems comfortable with his daughter’s mistakes. Instead of being concerned as an average parent might have been, Wang is calm and curious. 

To prove his point, Wang does one last experiment. Instead of writing her name backward, he scrambles the letters and writes “Aitv.”

“Is that your name?” he asks, sliding the scrap of paper to her.

Vita laughs. To her, what her father scribbled was a strange word.

“No!” she says. Dad nods and grins. 

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