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Dr. Ben Carson has served as director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center since 1986. He received national attention in 1987 for separating twins joined at the head. Nearly 20 years after that landmark operation, Dr. Carson removed his scrubs long enough to talk with us about the impact of electronic media on developing young minds … and the liberating power of books.

You've expressed concerns about how some media affect learning.
Think about the culture we live in. As soon as a baby is able to sit up, we stick him in front of the TV. When they get older and have a little bit of eye-hand coordination and dexterity, we get them a control so they can play computer games … zoom, zoom, zoom! That's all they're seeing all the time—fast motion. Then at 5 or 6, we put them in a classroom, and there's a teacher up front who's not turning into something every few seconds. And you expect them to pay attention? It's not going to happen.

Has that contributed to the wave of children being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder?
So often, when children come into my clinic they have some kind of neurological problem. But their parents tell me they're also on this drug and that drug for attention deficit disorder. I ask them one question: "Can they play video games?" They say, "Oh, yeah! For hours and hours, no problem!" I say, "Then they don't have it. That's pseudo-ADD. What you need to do is wean them off of those things and substitute quality time with you, reading and discussing things." When they do that, they come back and say, "Dramatic change!"

Your generation didn't grow up with video games, but television was certainly a big influence. How was it handled in your home?
I was an extremely poor student. My brother wasn't doing well, either. My mother didn't know what to do, but she worked cleaning other people's houses and noticed that in the homes of wealthy people, they didn't watch much TV. They spent a lot of time reading. So after praying for wisdom, she said, "I think this is what we'll do in our home!" We could only watch two or three pre-selected programs, and with all that spare time we had to read books from the Detroit public libraries and submit written book reports.

How did you respond to that?
I didn't like it very much at the beginning, but soon I recognized that, even though we were desperately poor, between the covers of those books I could go anyplace. I could be anybody. I could do anything. Using my imagination, I could see myself in a laboratory, conducting experiments. My vision of what my future was going to be changed, and I began to understand that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you! It's sort of like taking a baseball player up from the minor leagues who looks out on the mound and sees Nolan Ryan. And he says, "Oh no, Nolan Ryan! He's got a 90 mph fastball. He's struck out more people than anybody!" Well, with that attitude, you're probably not going to get a hit. Another rookie steps up to the plate—same talent—and says, "Ryan is an old man. I'm going to knock the cover off of this ball." Attitude makes all the difference in terms of the way you face things. And that's what began to change in me as I read. Reading also taught me spelling, grammar and syntax, which helps not only in writing, but in verbal communication.

Are you concerned about the cultural messages being sent to young African-American men?
If you can get the majority of young, black males running around thinking they're gonna be the next Michael Jordan or a popular rap singer or some fabulously rich gangsta, that's really as effective as putting a shackle on their ankle and driving a stake in the ground in terms of long-term success. It really is. That's why my wife and I started our scholarship program and why we created reading rooms that reward young people for discovering books. I was a troublemaker. I was a negative peer. But once I turned that around and understood how reading could empower me, it changed my whole character.

Published February 2006

Plugged In Plus
In 2009, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the straight-to-DVD movie Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, which starred Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. in the title role. One reviewer called it "a moving tribute to a real role model who's living proof that it's possible to overcome any obstacle standing between you and your dreams." As Dr. Carson mentioned, he and his wife, Candy, have been inspired to open safe, nurturing "reading rooms" for children and their families, as well as create a nonprofit scholarship fund (for more, visit