What exactly do babies think is going on when they Skype with their grandparents? Or when they watch TV? In both cases, they might react to the people on screen, but it’s often hard to tell exactly how they’re processing those images. Can they tell the difference between Grandma and Grandpa blowing them kisses in real time, and Dora the Explorer waving to them from the TV set?
According to The Atlantic, babies are surprisingly savvy at differentiating between television and video chat. Several studies have shown that infants develop the technological fluency to distinguish between the two as early as six months old. They’re able to pick up on certain cues, like time lag and direct address, that distinguish between real-time chat and the faux interactions on shows like Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer. They also pick up on social cues from their guardians—parents can help babies understand what’s going on by showing them how to interact with people on screen.
According to Elisabeth McClure of Georgetown University, “Babies are very sensitive to eye contact, physical contact, pointing at things, and all of those can be compromised.” Because of this, they can tell the difference between the responsiveness of a person on Skype and a character on a TV show. "Really tiny babies pick up on the social responsiveness of a person," says Georgene Troseth of Vanderbilt University. “If there’s something wacky about it, it bothers them.”
That’s not to say that small children have a perfect understanding of video chat—it’s still hard for them to understand exactly what’s happening when they see loved ones inside the computer. McClure told The Atlantic the story of one little girl who would leave snacks for her grandparents behind her parents’ iPad. “The mother kept saying, ‘Where does Grandpa live?’ And the little girl pointed to the screen and said, ‘Right there!’" Mc Clure recalled. "And in a sense, that is where he lives. When you want to see Grandpa, you go to the screen and ask for him.”
Babies may be incapable of talking, but at just a few months old, they've already developed many of the characteristics that will one day make their speaking voice distinct. That's the takeaway from a new study, reported by The New York Times, in which a team of bioacoustic researchers found that you can tell what infants will sound like at age 5 by analyzing their cries.
For their study, published in the journal Biology Letters [PDF], the researchers recorded the voices of 15 French children 4 to 5 years old. They then compared the clips to the children's "mild discomfort cries" recorded when they were 2 to 5 months old. The results showed that a baby's voice can be used to predict 41 percent of the variances they will have in their vocal pitch at age 5.
Other studies have suggested that what our voices sound like when we're young is a strong indicator of what they will sound like later on—even after puberty changes our vocal chords. A boy's voice pitch at age 7 can predict up to 64 percent of the distinguishing features his voice will have as an adult.
The study authors write that many of these variances may develop before childhood, and potentially in utero: "These observations suggest that inter-individual differences in [voice pitch] arise early in life and are largely unaffected by puberty, and raise the possibility that [pitch] may even be determined before birth."
The most important markers that determine pitch are the length, size, and tension of our vocal folds. But those aren't the only determinants: Environmental factors like smoking, pollution, and climate can affect how our voices sound as well, though these changes are usually temporary.
Sesame Streethas been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.
1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.
According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.
2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.
Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.
3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.
Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.
4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.
Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.
5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.
Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?
According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.
6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.
Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.
7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.
Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.
8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.
Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.
9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.
Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.
10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.
Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.