Patricia Kuhl, Co-Director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, has spent most of her career studying how early exposure to language helps children learn. In 2010 she gave a TED Talk about her findings called "The Linguistic Genius of Babies" that's now been viewed 2.3 million times. Recently, she started studying if early exposure to music would produce similar effects to those observed during early exposure to language.
We sat down with her for an in-depth conversation at the Simms/Mann Institute Think Tank.
Most of your research has been about early language acquisition and brain development. What made you want to also study music?
I’ve been very interested in [how] fundamental, small experiences that infants have change a broader area of the brain. So what are the characteristics of what builds brains? I know a lot about that with regard to language. I know when the critical period is for the development of sounds. I know exactly how it works. We’ve begun to put into practice interventions for first and second language that use all of this social principles, the use of parentese (slow, exaggerated speech about the here and now)—that’s been my work for a very long time.
I had a doctoral student, Christina Zhao, who’s a concert pianist; she came into my office one day and she said, "What would happen if instead of exposing babies at nine months to a foreign language for 12 sessions"—which we’ve shown to be near magic for creating learning of second language—"what if we exposed them to music instead?" She, being a musician, thought that something much more than just training the auditory system to detect musical notes would take place.
So we designed an experiment in which kids received 12 sessions of experience with music. And we based it very much on infant music classes, with a lot of the principles of early language learning: make it social, because the social brain is controlling kids’ interest and attention, have it with other kids, so joint experiences where kids are with their parents. They’re only 9 months, but we’re giving them the opportunity to keep time with the rhythm of the music: with their feet or their hands or with little mallets and drums they keep time to a rhythm. The rhythm was the waltz—many waltzes, so everything from "Blue Danube" to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which has the triple meter of the waltz.
And then the control group. They’re randomly assigned. So she takes her group of babies, 50 of them, to control vs experimental: control kids are also doing little actions on little play things like drums, they have mallets, they’re playing in groups, their parents are there, exactly the same except there’s no rhythm, there’s no music being played and no rhythm to keep. So the question is, what does that do to the baby brain, in 12 sessions? We know in the case of language it creates this miracle learning of foreign languages, so what does it do for music?
What does it do? And how can your researchers tell?
We can very precisely now measure what any experience does to the baby brain using our magnetoencephalography, which looks like a hair dryer from Mars—it’s this huge big machine with a helmet and inside the helmet are 306 sensors—they’re actually squids, super conducting, quantum interfering, devices that are picking up magnetic fields that directly show the firing of neurons. So the more activity, the more neurons are firing in synchrony.
All the babies go to this machine when they’re done with their sessions; this happens over a month and a half [where] they come in two to three times per week, until their 12 sessions are done and in the MEG machine, and we’ve got it arranged that the kids can move. It’s a silent machine, non-invasive, and we get a movie of their brain based on their firing of activity as they listen.
We play them a new waltz rhythm, but every once in a while, say every eighth measure, we put a violation in, we mis-time the third note: instead of bump, bump, bump, it goes bump bump… bump. So the timing is off. And then we also give them a foreign language word, in Japanese, that depends on the rhythm at which it’s spoken.
So you give kids examples of that rhythm and then you violate that rhythm. And the question is: what do they do? What do we see in the brain, and how good are the kids at detecting, reacting to that change? So bottom line, one thing we found was totally expected, meaning when you play music to the babies who have been listening to music for 12 sessions, their auditory cortises activate much more strongly in the kids who had music versus the kids in the controls.
However, there were two new things which were really wonderful surprises. Number one, their pre-frontal cortex where attention gets set, where patterns get detected, that’s firing like crazy in the kids who are in the music group and not in the kids who are in the control group. So we’ve not just affected sensory system but something broader, something higher level, something more about pattern detection.
So we argue, if we’ve changed pattern detection, something more cognitive, then this should work beyond music, it should work for some other kind of pattern, it should work for speech that the kids have never heard. Lo and behold, that’s the result we obtained. The kids who are listening to the Japanese word when the rhythm mistimes who are in the music group show greater activity both in auditory areas and in pre-frontal cortex where the attention pattern detector is. And kind of equal effects for music and speech.
Meaning that kids who have had early experiences keeping time to music, might have an easier time learning a foreign language?
Yes, again, [this] tells us two very surprising things: that when kids have early experiences, say visual, or haptic or auditory, it isn’t just training your eyes, your ears, your skin to touch, it isn’t just that sensory experience. It’s creating something bigger, something broader that could affect all of cognition. And what we’re affecting in this case is the ability to detect and predict a pattern.
Now, why is that important? We live in a world where no one knows exactly what to expect next. But your life is calmer, you reserve resources for creativity if you can kind of predict what’s next. You know how to drive the route, you know where the grocery store is, you know where the bank is. It’s this idea that the challenge in life is to detect and predict what’s going to happen next so that you’re ready for it. So that you can expect it and then move on to something more exciting and new and potentially creative.
So we think that this is an example when something fundamental and basic about how brains get built can happen with the simplest of routines that most kids experience. Like playing music and bouncing to the rhythm or like peek-a-boo, where the same thing happens over and over again and [babies] know that they’re going to get the boo at the end. Kids delight in that because it makes them connect with another human being, the social part. It helps them predict the world, which is the cognitive part and what we saw in the study is that you get the linguistic part too, because of all the language is patterns.
So the notion that children’s earlier experiences make a bigger difference than you expect is that the experiences they have go beyond that simple sensory system and build something bigger in another part of the brain that says you should attend to the world and expect it to be rational, and if you get that kind of locked into your head, you can go to the opposite and say, well the world isn’t always rational, right? Some kids’ worlds are totally chaotic. Toxic stress is real: there’s abuse, neglect, kids taken out by the foster care system, and just homes that are completely chaotic.
So what happens under those circumstances? You don’t have a lot of those good patterns that are safely predicting future, which makes kids seek out other patterns in the world, where they learn something about rational behavior and interactions with others and there’s a kind of safety and trust and cognition built into that. But in a child’s world in which there’s complete chaos, and the patterns aren’t there, and all that you can predict is that at some random time, you might get hit or at some random time, you’ll find yourself abandoned. It’s completely different.
And so, it brings you back to saying: early experience is really potent because it sets architecture. Our measures show what you’re building in the brain—you’re building white matter pathways, you’re strengthening connections between auditory areas and attention, you’re building real architecture that can be used quite broadly and so that’s real news, that helps understand the mechanism of early learning.
What was the other surprise?
This is art! We have this artificial separation between cognition and say, music and art in the schools. Oh, we’re going to eliminate the arts, we haven’t time for art. We haven’t time for music, because we have to strengthen kids cognitive skills for tests—it’s so artificial. Brains don’t work that way, whole children don’t work that way. They become more creative by doing things that potentially have to do with art, freeing their minds to do creative things through their understanding that there are patterns in the world, you can make them yourself and that they’re all around you. And so you seek them.
So I love this result because it flies in the face of what we’re doing in our schools and it should wake us up to the idea that brains don’t separate these parts. Brains aren’t organized into language and cognition and social interaction and music. It isn’t like that. When you do brain science and you watch a baby brain activate, you can see centers all over weighing in on the problem, whether it’s a word or whether it’s an experience of any kind. So I like that part of it I think it’s something we could learn a great deal about both from a basic science perspective and from a practical standpoint.
Do you wish that the head of Common Core would come visit your lab at the University of Washington?
Yes! I do! I really think that what I heard in the audience after I spoke [at the Simms/Mann Institute Think Tank] was many of the artists, the writers, the musicians, the dancers, many of them are saying, "Oh my gosh, I know that’s true for me. But it doesn’t seem as though anyone understands that." We need to build that into the public’s understanding.