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When Feeding the Brain, Start with Dessert


I am constantly struck by the similarities between feeding children and reading to them. There are some obvious ones: both activities involve nurturing; both require engagement and cooperation; in both situations there is the potential for power-struggles, frustration, and messes that need to be cleaned up. (OK, maybe a book doesn’t make as much of a mess as, say, oatmeal; but you get the point.)

Another less obvious similarity has to do with neurotransmitters; to be precise, with dopamine. Dopamine is an elegant little molecule that certain nerve cells make, then squirt at other nerve cells across microscopic gaps called synapses. The receiving nerve cells take up the dopamine and become excited (that’s the technical term), and proceed to pass on their excitement to still other neurons, creating networks and circuits within the brain. And somehow – and this is still a nearly complete mystery – all this activity creates…happiness!

Scientists long ago discovered certain parts of the brain that, when excited, release dopamine and create the feeling of happiness. They discovered that they could excite these areas using tiny electrical pulses. Of course, many millennia earlier, our ancestors learned to excite the same neurons using sex (still a pretty reliable strategy), certain psychoactive plants (such as cocoa) and various foods, especially sugary ones. With the advent of refined sugar, our ability to stimulate dopamine reached a new high. For evidence of the remarkably rewarding effect of refined sugar, you need only look at any supermarket shelf, or at any chart showing the mushrooming cloud of obesity which is shadowing our country.

So where does the reading aloud come in? Many of us have had the experience, at once exhilarating and debilitating, of reading to a young child who just can’t get enough. “Just one more book!” my daughter used to plead, in tones reminiscent of a junkie trying to score her next fix. Which in a way she was: the pleasure certain children feel at hearing stories, whether read or told, almost certainly arises in the same dopamine neurons that light up in response to heroin or cocaine. Dopamine is dopamine, whether the trigger is chocolate, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Parents rarely believe this, but it really is OK to start a meal with dessert. The surest way to get a child to hate broccoli or green beans is to force him to choke the stuff down before he can get to dessert. From the child’s point of view, if you’re willing to offer such big bribe to get him to swallow a few bites of vegetables, they must taste really foul! A small piece of cake or a couple of cookies isn’t likely to fill a child up, and if she’s still hungry after that, well, there are some nice green beans that might do the trick.

By the same token, when approaching literacy, it’s best to start the dopamine flowing early. Pleasure before business! As a conscientious parent, your first task, educationally speaking, is to get your child well and truly addicted to books. Begin with snuggling up, pretty pictures, freedom to flip pages or stare or point, entertaining words (not necessarily the ones printed on the page), excitement, discovery, shared enjoyment…dessert!

Robert Needlman, M.D., is co-founder of Reach Out and Read and President of the Greater Cleveland Reach Out and Read Coalition. He is the author of Dr. Spock's Baby Basics and co-author of the ninth edition of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock's classic parenting manual. He has also been a columnist for Parent and Child Magazine, and has written for parents online at and as a Yahoo health expert. His published academic work includes studies on pediatric literacy promotion, the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure, iron deficiency, maternal depression, and resident training. A graduate of Yale College (English Literature) and the Yale School of Medicine, Needlman practices and teaches Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland and is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.