Bilingualism Will Supercharge Your Baby’s Brain

According to Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author with Sandra Aamodt of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, the benefits of bilingualism go far beyond the ability to order convincingly at Maxim’s in Paris, or to read Dostoevsky in the original.

What’s the Big Idea? 



Pop quiz! Bilingualism is:

a. A competitive advantage on college and job applications.

b. Best acquired before the age of six. 

c. One area in which Americans are kind of lame.

d. Full of surprising ancillary neurocognitive benefits if acquired early. Bilingual toddlers are better able to process new information, more attuned to what others are thinking and feeling, more in control of their will and attention, and four years slower, once they reach old age, to experience dementia than are their monolingual peers.

e. All of the above.

Yep, it’s ‘e.’ If you’re not romantically involved, but would like to have children someday, maybe it’s time to consider an international dating site. If you’ve got a baby already, and both parents speak only one language, you could order Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Spanish or Mandarin, though a crash course at Berlitz might be better. Babies are hard-wired to attend to their parents’ voices, and can learn a second language best by interacting with them.

According to Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author with Sandra Aamodt of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, the benefits of bilingualism go far beyond the ability to order convincingly at Maxim’s in Paris, or to read Dostoevsky in the original. Bilingual toddlers have an improved ability to resolve “conflict cues.” In other words, their minds are more flexible – better able to unlearn previously learned rules in light of new, conflicting information.


Cognitive science has demonstrated that all learning is, to a great extent, a process of unlearning – of redefining the
schema we use to mentally represent and categorize the world. My notion of “teacher,” for example, was shaped and reshaped by every teacher I encountered as a school kid, and was radically transformed once again when I became a teacher for a while myself. According to schema theory, then, bilingual kids have a learning advantage in that their schemata are more flexible than they would be without the benefits of early second-language acquisition.

Bilingual kids are also better, says Wang, at “theory of mind” – the ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling. Theory of mind is closely related to empathy – or “emotional intelligence,” as Howard Gardner put it – a trait that is essential in forming strong relationships and negotiating the social world. Because our personal and professional lives depend to such a great extent on interpersonal relationships, an advanced theory of mind is, to a great extent, a recipe for happiness and success.

Effortful self-control, the wide-ranging benefits of which are addressed in two previous posts on Willpower and Self-Discipline, is also strengthened by early bilingualism. Scientists aren’t sure why, but think it may have to do with the act of concentration involved in switching repeatedly from one language to another.

What’s the Significance?

The significance is enormous. For one thing, these findings make a strong neurocognitive case for globalization, at least in the procreative sense. Or, as an expedient – if imperfect – substitute for those who can afford them, for international nannies. Given China’s astounding economic progress of late, there has no doubt been a spike in Chinese nannies in affluent communities nationwide.

There’s a socio-evolutionary angle here, too.  If international couples produce babies with significant cognitive advantages over their peers, then future industries may be dominated by people with an international perspective, who will meet and produce more babies, thereby reshaping the cognitive landscape of our world.

Or maybe not. It is always tempting to rave about how this or that new scientific finding will Reshape the Future of Everything. Still, if you or your partner is fluent in a second language, do your kid a favor – teach it to her.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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