Why talking — and listening — to your child could be key to brain development

A new neuroscience study finds that back-and-forth conversation is related to brain activity and verbal aptitude


More than 20 years ago, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered what they called the “30 million word gap.” Through family visits, they estimated that children under 4 from lower-income families heard a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families. That study was embraced by Hillary Clinton and it spurred a White House conference on the topic, public service announcement campaigns, and the creation of at least two outreach organizations. The clear message:  talk to your babies a lot.

But now a team of scientists from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania is questioning whether the quantity of words matters much at all. A study they published last month in the journal Psychological Science found that young 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds who engaged in more conversation at home had more brain activity while they were listening to a story and processing language.