Lessons From The Longest Study On Human Development: Helen Pearson (Transcript)

Full text of science journalist Helen Pearson’s talk: Lessons From The Longest Study On Human Development at TED conference.

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Helen Pearson – Journalist

Today I want to confess something to you, but first of all I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.

How many people here have children? And how many of you are confident that you know how to bring up your children in exactly the right way?

OK, I don’t see too many hands going up on that second one, and that’s my confession, too. I’ve got three boys; they’re three, nine and 12. And like you, and like most parents, the honest truth is I have pretty much no idea what I’m doing.

I know I want them to be happy and healthy in their lives, but I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do to make sure they are happy and healthy. I mean there’re so many books out there offering all kinds of conflicting advice, it can be really overwhelming.

So I’ve spent most of their lives just making it up as I go along.

However, something changed me a few years ago, when I came across a little secret that we have in Britain. It’s helped me become more confident about how I bring up my own children, and it’s revealed a lot about how we as a society can help all children.

I want to share that secret with you today.

For the last 70 years, scientists in Britain have been following thousands and thousands of children through their lives as part of an incredible scientific study. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.

Collecting information on thousands of children is a really powerful thing to do, because it means we can compare the ones who say, do well at school or end up healthy or happy or wealthy as adults, and the ones who struggle much more, and then we can sift through all the information we’ve collected and try to work out why their lives turned out different.

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This British study — it’s actually a kind of crazy story. So it all starts back in 1946, just a few months after the end of the war, when scientists wanted to know what it was like for a woman to have a baby at the time. They carried out this huge survey of mothers and ended up recording the birth of nearly every baby born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week. That was nearly 14,000 babies.

The questions they asked these women back then are very different than the ones we might ask today. They sound really old-fashioned now. They asked them things like, “During pregnancy, did you get your full extra ration of a pint of milk a day?”

“How much did you spend on smocks, corsets, nightdresses, knickers and brassieres?”

And this is my favorite one:

“Who looked after your husband while you were in bed with this baby?”

Now, this wartime study actually ended up being so successful that scientists did it again. They recorded the births of thousands of babies born in 1958 and thousands more in 1970. They did it again in the early 1990s, and again at the turn of the millennium.

Altogether, more than 70,000 children have been involved in these studies across those five generations. They’re called the British birth cohorts, and scientists have gone back and recorded more information on all of these people every few years ever since.

The amount of information that’s now been collected on these people is just completely mind-boggling. It includes thousands of paper questionnaires and terabytes’ worth of computer data.

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