Within the Book and Volume of Thy Brain

Is it naive to mention that there is an almost magical bond between a mother and her baby? A bond that, while certainly not less in the father is, well, different? At first, I assumed it was probably related to the closeness of breast feeding –yes, the oxytocin and its effects on bonding, and the magic of skin-to-skin contact- but this seemed to be a very reductionist way of looking at it –a post hoc ergo propter hoc approach. No, the amount of head-swaying I would see, the purring of the sing-song words barely audible from across the room, the eye contact with the bundles in their arms… All this seemed more like the devotion of religious acolytes than could be reasonably reduced to simple biological cause and effect in the little carpeted area where my patients would sit, waiting for their postpartum checkups. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, as Hamlet observed under admittedly different circumstances.

I mention this decidedly apostatic thinking because it occurred to me that some things are difficult to fit into a satisfyingly rational, or secular framework. Many years ago, I remember seeing a woman -Lorraine was her name, I think- who, my day-sheet informed me I had delivered 2 or 3 months previously. Anyway, she was coming in to discuss contraception and she had brought her little baby with her. I could see her sitting on the other side of the room talking and nodding rhythmically to the little tyke. Even from a distance, I could see they were locked in ocular embrace. Then, slowly, she reached into a bag at her feet and pulled out what seemed to be a large picture book. She nestled the baby in one arm and held the book open with the other hand so the baby could see it. From where I stood behind the front desk, I couldn’t really tell what pictures the baby saw, but she was naming what I suppose were animals, and whatever else came up from page to page.

Perhaps the baby was paying attention, but it seemed entirely too comfortable in her arms, and her voice far too much like a lullaby for it to keep its eyes open.

When her turn came to talk to me in the office, she told me that she’d noticed me watching her with the picture book.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” she said, showing me a collection of children’s drawings carefully pasted onto stiff pages and stapled into a folder. “And when the kids found out I was going to have a baby, they all decided to draw pictures for me to ‘read’ to it.” She drew little air quotes around the word. “And I thought, why not? It’s sort of like reading, isn’t it? The kids thought so, anyway…”

I have to confess that, although I always loved reading to my children, I enjoyed it more when they seemed to understand the words. When they reacted to my play-acting voice that attempted incarnation of the characters, painting the scene in words, pretending we could see the story. I enjoyed the immersion as much as they did, I suppose –we were the story, in a way. Each of us.

Now that I think of those times, I feel vaguely guilty that the experience was as much about me as it was about the child sitting beside me on the couch, or lying on her bed with saucered eyes in a room lit only by the lamp beside my chair. Each of us was as hungry as the other to discover what the words would tell us, our imaginations primed and insatiably curious as our minds watched the movie being played behind our eyes.

Sometimes, of course, I would read a book of their choosing, but both my son -and later my daughter- seemed to prefer it when I made up stories for them. No pictures –just verbal descriptions that neither of us could guess beforehand. Word riffs.

But Time moves on, and so does our knowledge of developing brains. It would seem that certain content, particular themes and even types of books, may be more helpful at different ages. I can’t say that it came as a surprise that infants, too, benefit from being bathed in words –it’s how vocabulary begins, after all. What I remain somewhat agnostic about, however, is that there might be a preferred order of progression. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine hoped to disavow me of this skepticism, however: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/babys-brain-benefit-read-right-books-right-time

For example,  the author, Lisa Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida: ‘[…] found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood. […]These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.’

I’m certainly not disputing the findings, nor offering any alternatives –I’m merely wondering whether or not it has that much of an effect on subsequent development of the child as it matures. As she points out earlier in the article, ‘Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.’

I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps the best message to get across to parents is the importance of reading to their child –interacting with the child- rather than getting them concerned that they’re not doing it the right way. That they’re using the wrong materials, or in the wrong order. Raising a child is hard enough at the best of times. Indeed, the author acknowledges this at the end of her piece: ‘It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read.’

But, then again, maybe this is just preaching to the converted. Mothers already know most of this –Lorraine did, at any rate.