WNYC Public Radio has a great podcast called Radiolab – fascinating and well-produced science-themed shows (much like This American Life, which I also love, except the focus is on science rather than stories). A recent Radiolab podcast about zoos includes the story of a New York biologist who studies wild chickadees, which every Autumn begin hiding seeds throughout the forest so that there are thousands of seeds hidden in thousands of hiding places when the snow finally comes. They can then find all their hidden seeds and survive the long harsh winter.
This biologist caught a bunch of wild chickadees and split them into two groups – one group he put in large cages and the other group he set free, to go about this process of hiding and then subsequently finding the seeds in the Winter.
Afterwards, the biologist did a brain comparison between the two groups of birds and found that in certain brain regions the wild birds had developed twice as many new neurons than the caged birds. He theorized that the new neurons would show up in both the wild and the caged birds on a regular (daily?) basis, but because the wild birds needed and used the new neurons in all their seed-hiding and seed-finding activities, the neurons remained – they stuck around. The caged birds, whose needs were all taken care of by the feeders in the cages without their expending any brain power, simply lost those neurons.
My father used to tell me that your brain needs to be exercised, otherwise it will get rusty, and I always thought that there was perhaps some truth to what he said, at least metaphorically. But I had no idea just how close to the mark he was with this statement.
Check out Radiolab – you and your kids will love it.