Currently a former neuroscientist turned stay-at-home mom, I get to stay home, and watch and play with my two girls. Old habits do not die too quickly; I often find myself observing my kids as if they are my former experimental subjects, rats. As they grow up and acquire new and more advanced skills, many questions have come up regarding what is going on in their brain and brain in general. Here are some questions I might ask if I were choosing a topic of research right now:
- Lifetime taste memory?
As I watch my 2-year old put everything and anything in her mouth, I can imagine what each object tastes like: metal, plastic, fabric, paper, wood… Although I have not actually tasted them recently, I am fairly certain that my ideas about how those objects taste are pretty accurate. But how do I know? When was the last time I actually put those items in my mouth? Do I remember from the time I was an infant/toddler when I did the extensive savoring? And would I remember those tastes forever?
Though I could not find exact answers to my questions, I did find an interesting study that suggested that memory for taste forms as early as in utero. According to the authors in this article, many flavors, e.g. garlic, carrots, vanilla and mint, are diffused into amniotic fluid and breastmilk. In this particular study, three groups of mothers drank carrot juice either during pregnancy, lactation, or never. When the babies started eating solid food several months after they were born, they were fed cereal prepared with carrot juice. Their facial expressions during the first feeding were recorded. The babies born to mothers who drank carrot juice during pregnancy or lactation exhibited much less negative facial expressions than those born to mothers who never did.
The authors suggested that less negative facial expressions are due to being already familiar with the taste via amniotic fluid or breast milk. This is one way that food culture and preferences are passed on. The ideas of how food taste are reinforced throughout the years after birth, but exposures to non-food stops at some point (hopefully). Are memories of metallic and plastic taste actually retained for lifetime?
2. Bilingual brain
My husband and I speak English to each other in an English-speaking country, but we each have a second language. Before our first daughter was born I declared to everyone around us that our daughter was going to be a trilingual. After our daughters have been born, my husband has been very diligent in speaking his second language to them. I on the other hand have been slacking off (it is more difficult and takes more discipline than I thought!). As a result (and attending an immersion preschool in my husband’s language), my almost 5-year old is a true bilingual. She switches between two languages beautifully. As I listen to my daughter and husband converse and have no idea what is being said, I wonder how language is processed by and represented in brain (not just a second language, but a first language as well).
My 2-year old is at the point where she repeats everything she hears. Her pronunciation of some words that I teach her of my second language is sometimes better than my 5-year old’s. Experts discuss a “critical period” for learning a second language. When you learn a second language prior to the age of 12, you speak the second language with vastly few or no accent. From my small study with a sample size of two, there seems to be age-related smaller windows and/or stages for language reproducibility and acquisition. I am certain there are actual studies on this, but it is still fun to observe in my kids.
[I want to expand more on this topic in a later post — there are many fascinating studies out there!]
3. Educational Neuroscience
While being a working neuroscientist, I had many conversations with my sister who was a high school English teacher. She often expressed wishes to have taken courses in neuroscience during her teacher training so that she could understand how the brain works and have come up with more effective ways of teaching. The discipline of Educational Neuroscience is emerging to bridge the gap between neuroscience research and classrooms. As a mom with kids approaching school-age and with learning and memory research background it is of a particular interest. Some neuroscience findings have already been applied and implemented in schools: delaying school start time and keeping recess and physical education. Skepticism of bringing neuroscience to classroom is there and perhaps sometimes warranted, but if done correctly and carefully, I believe there is much Neuroscience can offer to devise a method/environment for efficient and effective learning.
As my daughters exhibit any behavior, I keep asking why and how. I just hope that there are no negative repercussions for observing (or parenting?) my daughters with this type of ulterior motives…