At a crowded party or a noisy restaurant, most of us do something that is remarkable. Out of all the voices surrounding us, our brains pick out the one we want to hear and focus on what that person has to say. People with hearing loss are not so fortunate. Noisy situations are especially difficult for them and hearing aids and cochlear implants do not help much. Such technology generally either amplifies all voices or mushes them together so they are indistinguishable.
The vast majority of neuroscientific studies contain three elements: a person, a cognitive task and a high-tech machine capable of seeing inside the brain. That simple recipe can produce powerful science. Such studies now routinely yield images that a neuroscientist used to only dream about. They allow researchers to delineate the complex neural machinery that makes sense of sights and sounds, processes language and derives meaning from experience.
Social media is linked to depression—or not. First-person shooter video games are good for cognition—or they encourage violence. Young people are either more connected—or more isolated than ever.
Such are the conflicting messages about the effects of technology on children’s well-being. Negative findings receive far more attention and have fueled panic among parents and educators. This state of affairs reflects a heated debate among scientists. Studies showing statistically significant negative effects are followed by others revealing positive effects or none at all—sometimes using the same data set.
It’s just after daybreak on a plain at the edge of Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. In a fever tree grove, a troop of nearly 70 yellow baboons is getting an easy start to the morning. A few late risers sleep on in the upper branches, but the others have been dropping down to the scrubby grass, one by one.
Hiawatha, a six-year-old female, is picking through the coat of her older sister, Hoja, removing dirt and bugs. “It’s like somebody waking up, taking a shower, brushing your teeth and combing your hair,” Kinyua Warutere, a senior field assistant for the Amboseli Baboon Research Project, says quietly. “Before they set out, they’ll socialize in such a way. Mothers will groom kids. Friends will groom friends.”