Storytelling Makes Hearts Beat As One

Research shows that listening to the same narrative leads our heart rates to rise and fall in unison


By Susan Pinker

A human heart is so much more than an organ. No one says they left their pancreas in San Francisco, for example, or that two kidneys beat as one. Yet most of us believe that two hearts can beat as one, and that the heart reveals our unedited emotions. Now there’s some evidence that such folk wisdom is true.

When people listen to the same story—each alone in their own home—their heart rates rise and fall in unison, according to a new study published last month in Cell Reports. “The fluctuations of our heart rates are not random,” said Lucas Parra, a professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York and a senior author of the study. “It’s the story that drives the heart. There’s an explicit link between people’s heart rates and a narrative.”

This finding aligns with a mountain of research showing that our brains sync up when we interact in the same location, participate in the same activity, or simply agree with each other. The new study goes one step further; it tests whether our heart rates become synchronized while taking in the same narrative—even though we’re not in the same room nor even listening at the same time as other listeners.

The paper describes four small studies, each one with approximately 20 to 30 participants. In all four, subjects’ heart rates were monitored via EKG while they listened to or watched various types of stories, which included short audio segments of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” excerpts from educational videos, and prerecorded children’s fables.

The goal was to see how much heart rate coordination there was among participants within the same study, all of whom had listened to the same type of content, though at different times. Did the peaks and valleys of their heart beats match up on the EKG? How faithfully do our hearts clock our mental lives—while we are reading a book, or listening to the radio or a podcast, or watching video content on our phones?

Marcel Proust wrote at the turn of the 20th century, “the heart does not lie.” The data tells us much the same: The heart’s connection to the brain is so tight that when we hear the same story, our heart rates sync up. The study found that subjects in the same group produced synchronized heart rate patterns that rose and fell at roughly the same times during the narrative. But if the subjects became distracted from the story by having to count backward, their hearts became desynchronized, and they remembered less of the story.

The researchers didn’t analyze which parts of the story changed an individual’s heart rate, only how well the patterns matched. But they also could tell that a participant whose heart rate was highly correlated with other participants remembered the content better. “Our explanation is that the story drives one’s attention,” said Prof. Parra.

The results are “heartwarming,” he added. “The novel finding is that heart rate correlation between subjects does not require them to actually be interacting, or even be in the same place. They can be listening to stories all alone at home, and their heart rate fluctuations will align with the story, and thus correlate with other listeners. It’s not the interaction between people but the story itself that does the trick.”

The point, he said, quoting another of the study’s authors, is that when we listen to the same radio program or watch a Netflix show, our hearts beat in unison, showing that “we’re not alone.”

Appeared in the October 9, 2021, print edition.

Fighting Crime With Home Renovations

Research shows that funding big repairs for a damaged house can affect the crime rate for an entire city block



By Susan Pinker

“It takes more than a hammer and nails to make a house a home,” sang the Staple Singers in 1965. An infusion of cash to keep it shipshape helps too, and that in turn, according to a new study, can improve the safety of a city block.

Published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Open Network, the study explored the relationship between home improvement grants and street crime in Philadelphia. It found a tight link between municipally funded house repairs and a drop in crime on those blocks with a city-funded overhauled home.

The streets of many of Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods are lined with graceful, colorfully painted Victorian row houses. But with more than 23% of the city’s residents living in poverty, many of these architectural gems have been showing the wear-and-tear of neglect for decades. Since 1995 the city government has been offering home-repair grants—up to $20,000 to low-income homeowners—to assist with costly maintenance jobs.

This Basic Systems Repair Program does not cover cosmetic upgrades, like fixing cracked windows or painting, but instead addresses the structural problems that beset old houses, such as leaky roofs, broken sewer lines, dangerous wiring and damaged plumbing. The goal is to prevent evictions and abandoned homes and thus to preempt broken neighborhoods. The program differs from the controversial “broken windows” theory of the 1980s, which suggested that eliminating surface signs of deterioration—while escalating the policing of minor offenses—would reduce serious crime; that approach did not feature investing in the community itself, or its homes.

“From the city’s perspective, there are multiple social costs when a house becomes uninhabitable and vacant,” said Vincent Reina, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s authors. “A vacant house becomes a vacant lot. Historically there has been a lack of investment in communities of color. So we asked, what does this small investment do?”

To find out, the research team merged data from 19,869 city blocks with each block’s crime data, focusing on the years from 2006 to 2013. Over a third of those blocks had received a home repair grant during that time. Blocks with at least one house repaired ultimately were compared with blocks where owners were on the waiting list, who formed a natural control group. Using census tract data, the researchers statistically controlled for demographic and economic variables, seasonal fluctuations in crime and “regression toward the mean”—which happens when extreme findings level off over time.

The results showed that blocks with a single house repair subsequently had a 21.9% reduction in crime compared with blocks with houses on the waiting list. Additional houses repaired on a block were linked with further drops in crime—up to a maximum of four houses, after which the curve flattened.

This was an observational study, so it remains unclear exactly why fixing the plumbing or roof of a home might lead to fewer homicides or thefts on that block. But Dr. Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author, has some ideas.

A maintained house might lead to a reduction in stress and a boost in mental health, which lead to a “cascade of good things” she said. “Perhaps it’s easier not to get mad at a neighbor’s barking dog or to connect with neighbors if there’s no mold in the house causing a child’s asthma.” In short, the study may be telling us in numbers what the Staple Singers told us in the next verse of their song: “Truth and trust” are what make a house a home.

Coming Face to Face With an Illusion

Humans are hard-wired to spot facial features quickly so we can recognize friends or foes. That’s why we see a face in the moon, or on a handbag.



By Susan Pinker

How do we explain our knack of seeing things that are not really there? The man-in-the-moon, a smiley face on a manhole cover, the menacing grill of a car—such illusions of faces are part of a wider group of false pattern recognitions known as pareidolias. They’re all neural glitches: We know there’s no face on a manhole cover, yet we instantly recognize the image. The manholes’ eyes even seem to be watching us as we walk by. What’s going on?

Humans are primed to perceive faces wherever there’s a mere suggestion of one because our daily survival hinged on this trick eons ago, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences). Millennia later, the human brain still uses that neural shortcut to assess the level of interpersonal threat in a new situation. “You have to recognize people right away and know if they’re friend or foe, and you need to know it quickly,” explained David Alais, a psychology professor at the University of Sydney who led the study. “If there are two eyes, a nose and a mouth, there’s a response,” he said. “The brain can’t help but see something as a face, even if you know it’s a cheese grater. This highly evolved face recognition area exists in the brain because we’re the most social species on the planet.”

Pareidolias aren’t all about faces; they also include animal shapes identified in clouds formations or scenarios perceived in Rorschach tests. But those patterns are imagined; they emerge in a slower process of cognitive interpretation, rather than the ultra-fast matching triggered by the classic face template.

Two of Prof. Alais’s colleagues published a study last year that showed that observing face pareidolias engages the same region of the brain as observing a real human face. The region, called the fusiform gyrus, lines the base of the occipital and temporal lobes and is specialized for facial recognition. It becomes briefly excited in response to an illusory image but within 250 milliseconds, activation shifts to a different part of the brain. indicating that our perception of the object has moved on, too. We no longer see a face, but a car grill or the head of a mop.

“The brain doesn’t seem to think it has made a mistake,” said Prof. Alais. “Imagine someone looms up in your visual field and you have to work out their intentions. It’s more adaptive to have false positives than to miss a threatening face, because that could be the end of you.”

So it makes sense that we perceive feelings in face pareidolias. In the Royal Society study, 17 students were asked to rate the emotion expressed in a random series of 800 images that included a variety of human faces interspersed with illusory ones—on handbags, halved green peppers, cappuccino foam, plastic jugs and mop-heads. The expression ratings were fairly consistent: A “very angry” human face and a “very angry” handbag were given roughly the same scores.

The researchers also recognized a known cognitive bias called “positive serial dependence,” which means that the characteristics of one face influenced the perception of the next one in the series. In this study, the happiness perceived on a human face made the pareidolia that came after it look happier, and vice versa. The angry manhole cover made the subsequent human face look angrier.

It turns out that the brain sees ordinary objects as human faces with feelings, tricking us into thinking they’re the real thing, at least for a moment. They’re like the emoticons or emojis we use when typing messages. As basic as they are, said Prof. Alais, “Clearly they convey that very human thing: their emotions.”

Paying a Price for Being the Top Baboon

New research suggests that certain primates may age faster under the pressure of achieving and maintaining elevated status



By Susan Pinker

Being an alpha male has its rewards, including the ability to attract a young, gorgeous mate and fight off rivals for her attention. But achieving high status has its downsides, too. Namely, alphas tend to live hard and age fast.

So says a newly published study of male baboons from Kenya’s Amboseli Park. The park’s baboon troops have been under scientific scrutiny for 50 years, says Jenny Tung, the study’s lead author and a professor of evolutionary anthropology and biology at Duke University. Nine generations of family and friend networks already have been mapped out. “The observers are the proverbial flies on the wall.” said Dr. Tung. “They record each birth, what each baboon does, its early life experience, who they are competing with and who wins.”

In the new study, published in the journal eLife, Dr. Tung’s team combined the behavioral records of 245 adult males with data about their genetic health from blood samples. Knowing each male’s position in its troop, the researchers could match an animal’s social status to the wear and tear on his body, as revealed by changes to his DNA called methylation markers. These are the body’s estimates of an animal’s aging process, which is how the researchers discovered that males who have high social status have characteristics in their DNA that make them look older than they really are.

Jockeying to be top baboon, it turns out, was the opposite of Botox. The DNA of alpha males suggested they were nearly a year older than their chronological age, subtracting more than 11% of the average eight-year male lifespan. “But if males lost rank, they stopped looking older than their chronological age,” said Dr. Tung. “We were able to show that the clock can speed up or slow down as males move up or down the social ladder.”

Why would fierce competition speed up the epigenetic clock? “You have to make it to the top and stay there,” she said. “That’s when you get to mate. Following around females that are potentially fertile takes some work!”

Such surveillance and sparring is stressful, in other words. Work by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford has shown that relentless pressure—whether physical or interpersonal—promotes the secretion of glucocorticoids, hormones that ramp up heart rates, blood pressure and energy levels and also mess with immunity and metabolism. “Type A baboons are the ones who see stressors that other animals don’t,” Dr. Sapolsky said in a lecture. “For example, having your worst rival taking a nap 100 yards away gets you agitated.”

Though the researchers can’t explain why maintaining high status has an aging effect, high levels of glucocorticoids are one clue. In late April the same team published a study showing that female Amboseli baboons with high levels of these hormones also live shorter lives.

What does it all mean for us? High status is usually related to better health in humans. The less fortunate tend to have higher rates of disease, as we’ve seen with the coronavirus. But there are also some parallels. The relentless responsibility of a top job can age you, as we can see in the pre- and post-presidency photos of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Indeed, according to a 2019 study, CEOs who faced hostile takeovers had their lives cut short, on average, by two years.

What’s the point of being top dog if you pay for that status with your life? For baboons, it means leaving behind many more surviving offspring—which means life might have been short, but evolutionarily speaking, it sure was sweet.

Children Need Teachers They Can Trust

New research shows that a warm relationship with a teacher can help at-risk preschoolers thrive.



By Susan Pinker

After a year of online learning, how do you quantify the benefits of sitting in a real classroom, taught by a flesh-and-blood teacher? This question should be front and center for parents concerned about infection risk. Is the proximity worth it?

For vulnerable small children, the answer is a resounding yes. The opportunity to form a trusting relationship with a teacher is the best predictor of high-functioning among preschoolers who are at risk, according to a new study of homeless youngsters. “The study includes children we don’t know a lot about, children who are doubled-up”—that is, in families who are living with others because they lack resources to obtain their own housing. “These are kids who are a little more invisible,” said Mary Haskett, the lead author and a psychology professor at North Carolina State University.

The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that 1.4 million American children under age 6 were homeless in 2017-2018, a record high. The number has surely climbed due to pandemic-related job loss, but the rise of remote learning makes it harder to track. “There are no eyes or ears of teachers to see signs of homelessness, no buses to reroute, no places for quiet conversations with parents,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit devoted to reducing homelessness.

Upheaval and the loss of stability, privacy, and reliable access to the internet typically bounce many homeless children into a red zone, research shows. Yet a significant proportion do exceedingly well in school, and Prof. Haslett wanted to know why. “What are the protective factors? If we identify the buffers, we can promote resilience,” she said. For the study, which took place pre-pandemic, her research team began by selecting 314 “doubled-up” children in Head Start classrooms. Information about student performance was gathered through parent and teacher surveys, classroom observations and individual child assessments.

About two-thirds of these preschoolers made friends easily and learned well in the classroom. Despite their unstable living conditions, they seemed to be humming along nicely. The remaining one third showed various degrees of difficulty. Only 3.2% of the group was classified as “struggling.”

Success turned out to be tied to the quality of the bond between child and teacher—specifically, the degree of warmth and affection between them. “The probability of a child being classified as resilient increased dramatically as the quality of teacher relationships increased,” Dr. Haskett wrote.

It’s not the first time that a good teacher emerged as the most powerful predictor of a child’s success. In a landmark 2011 study of 2.5 million American students, a superb middle-school teacher presaged a preteen’s ability to finish college, live in a good neighborhood and earn more over a lifetime.

In this study we can’t say for sure what comes first, school success or relationships with teachers. Perhaps the teachers were responding to existing qualities in the thrivers—or as Tom Boyce, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, calls them, “dandelions.” In his 2019 book “The Orchid and the Dandelion,” Dr. Boyce refers to the 80% of children who can grow and succeed nearly anywhere as “dandelions,” while the 20% who are exquisitely sensitive to their environment he calls ”orchids.”

No matter the flower, “there’s an abundance of evidence that a teacher’s influence is very strong,” Dr. Boyce said, and I agree. When family life is uncertain, there’s nothing like a trusted teacher to help a child feel that the world is turning as it should.

A Live Feed of the Arguing Brain

Using novel imaging techniques, researchers can see how agreement and opposition stimulate our neurons in different ways.



By Susan Pinker

Most people would agree that verbal sparring feels more taxing than simply nodding and agreeing. Defending a position while attacking your opponent’s is stressful. So how does the human brain register that tension?

Until recently, no one knew. Capturing in-the-moment psychological states has long been the role of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As miraculous as this brain imaging technology can be, the machines can accommodate just one person. As such, they are not ideal for assessing the social brain.

Joy Hirsch, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, and a team of colleagues and students came up with a workaround that allowed them to peer under the metaphorical hoods of two people while they were interacting. The team used an alternative neuroimaging method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, which deploys light to capture the changing energy requirements of the brain. Instead of lying alone and immobile inside a massive electronic doughnut, as happens with fMRI, fNIRS simply requires the conversation partners to don wired-up bathing caps. They are out in the open, free to gesticulate and move naturally.

In a study published last month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dr. Hirsch and colleagues used this technique to assess the neural function of two people discussing controversial topics such as same-sex marriage and the death penalty. They discovered that “there’s a profound difference between our brains when we’re arguing versus when we’re agreeing,” Dr. Hirsch told me. It’s not just that arguing takes more effort; the difference is also qualitative, recruiting different swaths of neural real estate.

When the two participants agreed, an unexpected brain synchrony emerged. “There’s more looking at each other’s faces, there’s more social, sensory and motor cortex involvement,” Dr. Hirsch said. But when they argued, “there’s more engagement of the language and cognitive areas of the brain. A massive amount of thinking and strategizing goes on during disagreement.”

The study involved 38 people under age 30 who were recruited through fliers distributed around the Yale campus. Though the participants were all Yale students, their backgrounds were diverse and many had opposing opinions on controversial topics.

The researchers divided the subjects up into pairs and asked them to discuss an issue where they concurred and another on which they held opposing views. Each participant argued for their point of view while wearing a cap studded with fNIRS sensors for detecting shifts in blood flow in the brain, as well as a head-mounted camera and a microphone.

The study’s most striking finding was that when people agreed with each other, “their gestures, their facial expressions and their neural signals matched,” said Dr. Hirsch. The activity in their respective social and attentional neural networks and visual fields, as well as the engagement of the bits of the cortex that control touch, posture and empathy, began to mirror each other. Researchers call it neural coupling.

It should come as no surprise that there were fewer neural look-alikes during disagreements. When two brains are in conflict, Dr. Hirsch said, they engage many emotional and cognitive resources, like a symphony orchestra playing two different scores, whereas in agreement, the social interaction between them is more like a musical duet. “If synchrony is the hallmark of agreement, then through eye contact, gestures and the sensory system, perhaps certain topics might become less charged,” she ventured. One can only hope.

Do Dogs Really Make Us Happier?

New research shows that the psychological benefits of dog ownership are real —and especially valuable during the pandemic.

Person with dog

Owning a dog promotes the flow of oxytocin, a hormone that fosters feelings of well-being. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Last summer my life was upended when I was given an oversize 4-month-old puppy for my birthday. Otis’s arrival created joy and anxiety in equal measure. Already well into the pandemic, my husband and I wondered what effect this shaggy, disoriented creature would have on us. Would he provide comfort? Or would his chewing, nipping, soiling, lunging and barking only multiply our stresses?

By April 2020, the adoption rate for dogs in the U.S. had increased by more than 30%, according to Sara Kent, CEO of the nonprofit database Shelter Animals Count. By year’s end, spending on pet care and supplies had reached a record $99 billion. Lots of Americans expect dogs to lift their spirits, it seems.

We’re not alone: A new study of the human-dog relationship during the early days of the pandemic, by Liat Morgan and her research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of British Columbia, found that in Israel, too, dog adoptions ramped up as social and economic restrictions increased. Disasters like earthquakes and floods usually prompt people to give up their pets, but the study found that during the pandemic, far fewer people relinquished their pets to shelters—a trend echoed in the U.S., said Ms. Kent.

I soon became besotted with Otis, who is now an 80-pound adolescent. Still, I wanted some proof: Do pets really reduce our loneliness and make us feel happier?

In 2019, a study led by Lauren Powell, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at whether getting a dog improved the owner’s activity level, cardiovascular health and psychological state. The researchers used advertising and social media to recruit 71 people living in Sydney, Australia, and separated them by inclination: People who planned to get a dog within a month, people who wanted a dog but agreed to wait until after the study was complete, and people who had no interest in ever acquiring a dog.

All participants were evaluated at three junctures: at baseline; three months later, after those in the first group got a dog; and again after eight months. Each time they were poked, prodded and scanned to test their physical activity, substance use and cardiovascular levels. Their psychological states were checked too, via standardized evaluations of anxiety, loneliness and depression. The researchers then compared the dog-owners to members of the two dogless control groups, statistically manipulating factors such as education, age and appetite for exercise, to make sure that the canine alone accounted for any differences.

The results showed that after three months, people with dogs walked 2,589 more steps a day than the control groups. “But at eight months there was a drop-off, so the difference was no longer significant,” said Dr. Powell, speculating that “people were really excited at first, but maybe the novelty wore off.”

The psychological impact of a dog packed a bigger punch. “Basically we found that the loneliness in the group that got a dog decreased by 40% and stayed at that lower level at eight months,” said Dr. Powell.

But how exactly do dogs make us happier? In a previous study, Dr. Powell’s group had shown that owning a dog promotes the flow of oxytocin, a hormone that decreases our heart rate and fosters feelings of well-being and relaxation. Plus, she adds, dogs “encourage their owners to get out in nature, maintain a sense of routine, and stay in touch with their neighbors. All the things that benefit our mental health in normal times are just more important during Covid.”

I’m a witness, and couldn’t agree more.

A Musical Cure for Covid-Related Stress and Sadness

New research shows that playing or listening to music is the most effective way to cope with the lockdown blues.



By Susan Pinker

Nov. 25, 2020 3:26 pm ET

What’s the most popular fix for the Covid-19 blues? The Italians and Spaniards who ventured out onto their balconies last March to sing and play instruments have at least part of the answer. Emerging evidence shows that the more the world gets us down, the better music feels.

So says a new study involving 1,000 participants from the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Carried out by Pablo Ripollés and Michael McPhee of New York University in collaboration with Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University, the study looked at what people considered their most effective coping mechanisms during the shelter-in-place orders at the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

The researchers began by assessing how profoundly the pandemic affected each participant. Did that person get very sick? Did they lose a spouse, a parent, a friend or a job? How anxious did they feel? The researchers then looked at which activities worked best to lift people’s moods. Sex and drugs were among the 43 options participants could choose from, along with exercise, cooking, social media, video calls and various types of entertainment.

The participants, who were fairly representative of their countries in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and social status, also completed standardized personality tests, as well a questionnaire designed to assess their sensitivity to rewards. “The sensitivity to reward questionnaire assesses how much enjoyment you get out of certain activities. It could be eating, sex, staying in the shower or smelling the flowers,” said Prof. Zatorre. In addition, the participants completed a survey assessing their emotional expressivity, or how readily they reveal their feelings.

The study found that music, exercise and entertainment were the most potent stress relievers for the greatest number of people. But of those three activities, music—singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or just listening to a favorite playlist—was the only one that led to a reduction of depression symptoms. A fifth of all the participants reported it as the most effective way to reduce their pandemic-induced blues. Music’s palliative effects were particularly potent for people who were highly sensitive to rewards.

“That’s super interesting,” said Prof. Zatorre, “because as a neuroscientist, I’ve known for quite some time that music provokes pleasure. When we scan your brain [while you listen to music], we can see dopamine molecules released in the striatum and the ventral striatum. Fifty years ago, when you gave a hungry rat food, you saw that response in the striatum,” Prof. Zatorre explained, inferring that humans are similarly wired to get visceral pleasure from music. “Now we find that the more pleasure you get from music, the more it reduces your depression symptoms.”

Cooking, baking and eating also helped tamp down the blues, especially for people who find it easy to express their emotions, the study showed. Though the study didn’t address why that is, one possibility is that cooking provides a creative outlet when emotions are running high and so many external venues have been closed. “Cooking might allow you to cope with the stress that you are feeling without burying it,” wrote Prof. Ripollés, one of the paper’s authors.

This study is so new it hasn’t been published yet, so it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. Plus, it hinges on participants’ self-assessment; there’s no independent party measuring whether people’s depression symptoms did, in fact, abate. But for now, these preliminary data suggest that music and food might well cure what ails us, especially in these turbulent times.

Appeared in the November 28, 2020, print edition as ‘A Musical Cure For Pandemic Sadness.’

The Lasting Benefits of Preschool

A new study confirms that pre-K education gives young children significant advantages in language, literacy and math skills

Children who attend preschool are far more likely to graduate from college. PHOTO: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Oct. 22, 2020 10:57 am ET

Multiple studies show that going to preschool gives young children a leg up on all kinds of learning, not just academics but social skills, listening, planning and self-control. But how big is that early boost and how long does it last? The answer matters because, despite bipartisan support for early childhood education, preschool is unevenly funded in the U.S., resulting in lower levels of attendance than in other countries. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 34% of American 4-year-olds attended preschool last year. Compare that with 60% in Canada and 90% in the EU.

A new study published in the journal Developmental Psychology clarifies some of the differences between children who go to preschool and those who stay home. Though the researchers didn’t randomly assign children to each group, they ensured that the preschool attenders and nonattenders were demographically similar. The 2,581 children in the study lived in the same ethnically diverse U.S. county, and all came from families whose income put them below the poverty line, making them eligible for subsidized pre-kindergarten. A quarter of the families received public assistance and 10% had no full-time wage earner.

Researchers measured how attenders and nonattenders stacked up against each other at the beginning and the end of kindergarten. In general, they found that “children who attended pre-K outperformed the others in terms of language and literacy and math. We’re talking about the very basics,” said Arya Ansari, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State University.

At the beginning of kindergarten, preschool attenders were far more advanced than nonattenders on assessments of vocabulary, background knowledge, letter identification, short-term memory and other areas. For example, the pre-K attenders were approximately 8 months ahead of nonattenders in academic learning and about 5 months ahead in executive function skills, such as listening, planning and self-control.

By the end of kindergarten, the nonattenders were beginning to catch up, but more in some subjects than others. Eighty percent of the starting gap in pre-literacy skills was erased by the first year of instruction, but only 55% of the gap in math skills and 45% in general knowledge. Given that all subjects in a classroom were taught by the same teacher, the disparity can be attributed to the nature of the subjects themselves, as opposed to the quality of the teaching. Other independent factors such as the child’s feelings about the teacher or the amount of attention they received were assessed and controlled for by the researchers.

And the advantage of preschool attenders may actually increase as they get further away from kindergarten. Earlier studies on the impact of preschool programs have often shown lukewarm results in the first few years, but decades later, dramatic sleeper effects emerge. Even when controlling for their parents’ income and education levels, preschool attenders have been found to be less likely to become teenage parents or receive public assistance and far more likely to graduate from college and get good jobs as young adults.

Childhood isn’t a race, of course. Still, the pace of learning is important because knowledge builds on itself. Think of any skill: playing the piano, shooting hoops, driving a car—even impulse control. It’s almost never too late to start, but the earlier you do—within limits—the better your chances of getting better all the time, as Paul McCartney put it.

The (Gifted) Kids Are All Right

A new study suggests that teenagers who take challenging courses and skip grades are happy and well-adjusted in later life, contrary to stereotypes

Jim Parsons as socially inept genius Sheldon on ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ PHOTO: RICHARD CARTWRIGHT/CBS/GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Sept. 17, 2020 12:52 pm ET

What do Lady Gaga, Rep. Katie Porter of California and Fields Medal-winning mathematician Terence Tao have in common? As teenagers, they were all selected to participate in programs for the gifted and talented. Or they got the chance to enter college early. Or both.

It’s widely thought that being identified as different or skipping ahead academically at a young age comes at a social cost. “There is the belief that individuals who are academically talented are emotionally vulnerable, and changes in routine such as grade-skipping will trigger that vulnerability,” says Frank Worrall, director of the school psychology program at the University of California, Berkeley. Examples abound in popular culture, he notes, citing the brilliant but socially inept main characters in the TV series “The Big Bang Theory.” In this view, it’s better for gifted children to stay in class with their age-mates instead of being bumped up a grade or challenged by an advanced curriculum.

But the idea that intellectual prowess makes young people vulnerable snowflakes is a myth, according to fresh data collected and analyzed by David Lubinski and Camila Benbow, professors of psychology and education at Vanderbilt, who have followed the lives of gifted kids for decades. In a study published last month in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the two professors, along with doctoral student Brian Bernstein, followed over 1,600 highly gifted American teenagers who were identified in the 1970s and ‘80s as among the top 1% in their age group in math and verbal abilities. These students were selected for advanced educational opportunities before they graduated from high school. Did early acceleration interfere with their happiness in the long term?

To answer that question, the researchers looked at how these students are doing at age 50. Using several standardized tests, the team found that there was no relationship between an accelerated academic program—such as being targeted for an enrichment program, skipping a grade, entering college early or taking an outsize number of AP courses in high school—and the students’ ultimate psychological balance.

In a second study conducted by the same team to see if their findings would replicate, nearly 500 former teen participants in Vanderbilt’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth were assessed at age 25, when they were first- or second-year doctoral students in science in prestigious American universities, and then again at age 50, when they were well-ensconced in their careers. The results showed once again that early academic acceleration did not predict later maladjustment. In fact, “this group had scores that were above average on psychological well-being…on psychological flourishing, positive affect and life satisfaction,” according to the paper.

I asked Dr. Lubinski whether qualms about the educational privileges enjoyed by gifted students make his findings contentious. “People say, why are you studying the top 1%. They wouldn’t say that about studying schizophrenia,” which affects the same percentage of the population, he replied. “We talk about celebrating diversity. If you look at special populations that require different opportunities for optimal development, the gifted are members of that group.”

Dr. Lubinski also notes that “the funny thing about a lot of giftedness education is that it doesn’t cost any extra. All it requires is providing kids with resources at an earlier age.” And all of society has an interest in making sure these students flourish: “When you think of fighting pandemics, cybersecurity or climate change, you’re looking at the top 1%. That’s why this is important—they have the greatest potential to solve these problems.”