Millions of people—perhaps you’re one of them—have watched viral videos of a Scottish granny collapsing in laughter while she reads to a baby. Comfortable on a sofa with her grandson, Janice Clark keeps cracking up as she tries to read “The Wonky Donkey” and, in a second video recorded a few months later, “I Need a New Bum.”
Her raspy burr sounds great, and she’s fun to watch, but the real genius of the scene is what’s happening to the baby. Tucked beside her, he’s totally enthralled by the book in her hands. In the second video especially, because he’s older, you can see his eyes tracking the illustrations, widening in amazement each time that she turns the page. He’s guileless, unaware of the camera. He has eyes only for the pictures in the book.
What’s happening to that baby is both obvious and a secret marvel. A grandmother is weeping with laughter as she reads a story, and her grandson is drinking it all in—that’s obvious. The marvel is hidden inside the child’s developing brain. There, the sound of her voice, the warmth of her nearness and, crucially, the sight of illustrations that stay still and allow him to gaze at will, all have the combined effect of engaging his deep cognitive networks.