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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

In his academic life, Wang says his most notable accomplishments lie in two areas: brain evolution and synaptic plasticity, in which he has studied the synapses of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that helps you play tennis or dance or do anything that requires coordination. His lab, he explains, has shown that the cerebellum follows rules that are largely distinct and rarely found elsewhere in the brain.

In brain evolution, Wang says, his Princeton lab has found that the shared hallmark of smart birds and mammals is a big forebrain.

“Others work on this, too, but our special insight is that the internal proportions are a key factor,” Wang says. “Parrots, chimps, humans, and crows all have disproportionately big forebrains, more than the minimum needed to communicate with the rest of the brain. This extra brain mass supports complex behavior.”

The research has led Wang to conduct a study in which he and his students are ranking the smartest breeds of dogs. (The Portuguese water dog — like the one owned by President Barack Obama — ranks as No. 1 in their preliminary results. Wang’s dog, Willy, is a pug, a breed that he said ranks low in trainability but high in other factors.)

“Why are pugs attention-seeking? Why are poodles smart? Why do terriers chase everything in sight?” Wang asks. “Nobody has done a good job of connecting these with brain structure. Using veterinary scans, my undergraduates hope to make that connection.”

Canine intelligence has not been Wang’s only nontraditional research topic. By 2008, Wang was earning a national reputation among mainstream audiences for his research into presidential election polling data. For the race between Barack Obama and John McCain, Wang’s presidential poll­ing website, the Princeton Election Consortium, attracted more than 1.3 million visitors, he says. Wang prided himself on looking at several strands of polling data, and chafed at how mainstream news organizations selectively highlighted one data point at a time. 

Despite the potential for fame in political analysis, Wang — who describes himself as a “big, fat Democrat” — is ambivalent about resuming that endeavor for the 2012 election. “It’s become something that’s so mainstream,” he says. “Is it really necessary for me to do this now?”

Wang met his co-author, Aamodt, on election night in 2000 at a party in New Orleans where participants at the Society for Neuroscience were meeting. (If that sounds like a nerdfest, Wang says, he hired a brass band for the event and the party spilled out into the streets.)

Aamodt, at the time the editor of the Nature Neuroscience journal, remembers the meeting well. “One of our mutual friends dragged Sam over to me that night, and said something like, ‘You guys are talking about writing the same book, and instead of competing, you should write together,’” she says. “What were the odds?”

It took a while for them to get free time from their day jobs and research and write Welcome to Your Brain, which they completed in the spring of 2007. Wang came up with the idea for a sequel on how children’s brains work, and Bloomsbury USA bought the book on the title alone, Aamodt said.

They set to work on the new book in the fall of 2009. They read hundreds of neuroscience and psychology papers, plucking out the most interesting stuff and translating it for general readers. To ensure accuracy and a tone palatable for sensitive parents, they gave drafts to several of Vita’s preschool teachers and her pediatrician. They sought suggestions. Wang and Aamodt originally had included an anecdote about a friend of theirs — a neuroscientist — who was pregnant and having a beer. Someone yelled at the pregnant friend for drinking, and, Aamodt says, the expectant mother retorted something like: “The benefit of stress reduction from this one beer greatly outweighed any risk of having a beer.” 

“A number of doctors who read the draft — and I am not sure I agree with it — took the conservative view that it was irresponsible to encourage people to drink while someone was pregnant. I have a little more faith in women myself,” Aamodt says. “We were both like, ‘Ugh. It’s not that critically important. I guess we have to take it out.’ ”

In addition to their takes on breastfeeding and IQ, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain contains other surprising information, such as: A young person’s brain isn’t finished developing until his or her 20s; 20 percent of babies born between 34 and 37 weeks of gestation end up with “clinically significant behavioral problems,” and the risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is 80 percent higher than in full-term babies; children who hear more words while talking with their parents before age 2 learn language faster than children who hear fewer words; 3-year-olds take gender roles “as seriously as drag queens”; telling lies is an accomplishment for children because it shows that kids know what reality is and isn’t; and finally, Wang’s big bugaboo — that baby videos can be harmful to tots 2 and younger, and those who spend more time in front of a television screen, even if it’s Baby Einstein, know fewer words compared to kids who don’t watch television. 

“Television, in general, is inadvisable for any child under the age of 2,” Wang says. Then, his shoulders slump, and he seems to realize he sounds a bit alarmist. “If you’re a busy parent, and you need 15 minutes of quiet, maybe it’s OK to park your kid in front of the TV,” he says. 

Neuroscientist David Linden, author of The Compass of Pleasure (Viking, 2011), says Wang and Aamodt have managed to distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace of brain books. “Sam and Sandra said, ‘We’re going to go slightly easier and slightly less technical and capture a wider slice and readership,’ which is just as valid,” says Linden, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Over lunch outside Prospect House, Wang’s 4-year-old acts like most others you see at restaurants. (Wang says Vita is careful to point out that she is 4-and-a-quarter years old.) One moment, Vita is spilling her drink; the next, she is rejecting foods she doesn’t want; and soon she is groping for her dad’s iPhone so she can play a game.

And Wang is like other dads, too. He entices her to eat all of her ham sandwich by offering her the reward of delicious, sugary fruit juice. 

But at other times, it’s clear Wang is equipped with parenting knowledge that might be more thoughtful than the average father’s. Wang and his wife, Rebecca, a physician at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, plan to start teaching Vita a foreign language before she gets much older and it becomes harder for her brain to become fluent. Bilingual children, according to his new book, outperform monolingual children on tests that measure the ability to understand what people are thinking or feeling, or to predict another person’s point of view.

Indeed, one of Wang’s biggest priorities is teaching his daughter empathy. 

“Vita, if I take your sandwich, how does that make you feel?”

Vita makes her face look sad.

Wang explains: “We experience emotions in ourselves and we analyze emotions of others using the same brain structures,” he says. “If I can get her to make a sad face, then she’ll feel that sad feeling more directly, more than if I simply said, ‘Imagine how that would make you feel.’”

But some things are out of Wang’s control. 

When Vita is asked if she ever watches television, Wang interjects and says the family doesn’t own a television set, and only watches videos or movies on a DVD player. 

“When we watch TV, we watch it together,” he says.

Then he gets curious. “Vita, when you go to a friend’s house, what do you do?”

Vita responds: “Play. Only when I go to Miles’ home do I watch TV.”

Wang’s mouth drops. He is not amused, but is curious to hear more. Go on, he says. “What do you watch?”

Vita starts cracking up: “We watch Tom the Train. We always watch Tom the Train. He’s so funny. He goes through the tunnel and he falls over,” she says.

Wang smiles, and leans back with satisfaction. 

“My goodness,” the professor says, watching his latest finding emerge. 

Ian Shapira ’00 is a reporter at The Washington Post.

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