Why This Funder is Spending Millions to Look Inside Your Kid's Brain

I wrote yesterday about the innovative doings of the Bezos Family Foundation, an outfit led by Jeff's parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos and focused solely on education. Well, here's what may be the most intersting thing of all: It's pouring serious money into understanding brain development in small children.

The foundation is backing the Developing Mind Project at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, which is a “multi-year, multimillion-dollar initiative to foster new brain research discoveries and insights into how and when young children learn.”

In 2010, the Bezos Family Foundation put up a $5 million gift to support the launch of the I-LABS MEG (or, Magnetoencephalography) Brain Imaging Center, which hosts the first brain-imaging device in the world optimized for use with infants and young children.

What is MEG and why is it important, you ask? The new MEG machine “allows I-LABS to look at the whole brain to visualize the working together of billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections linking these neurons in an effort to better understand complex human systems such as language acquisition and problem solving.” Further I-LABS research will help “establish how early experiences affect the growth and development of the young brain, with particular emphasis on how the social and emotional context influences learning.”

Got all that? 

The foundation is keeping a close eye on its investment here. Jackie Bezos (President) and Megan Wyatt (Managing Director) sit on the Advisory Board of the Institute to oversee this groundbreaking research.Other big-name funders like Gates, the National Institutes of Health, and Casey Family Programs (UPS founder Jim Casey) have also poured significant resources into the Institute as well.

Meanwhile, on a very different note, since 2011, the Bezos Family Foundation has also been supporting theHarvard Center on the Developing Child, particularly their Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) initiative.

The FOI initiative takes an unusual approach toward exploring the development of young minds by focusing on the capabilities of adult caregivers. This work explores the development of adults’ self-regulation skills, executive functioning, and mental health. The theory of practice here seems to be that if FOI can succeed in enhancing adult employability, children will experience improved economic and social stability and benefit positively from this new context.

As I noted yesterday, the Bezos Family Foundation is not your run-of-the-mill education foundation. They are putting their money into the latest cutting-edge research and looking to scale it up quickly through direct translation into promising innovative practices.