Category: Developmental

Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around

Woman glowing brain conceptBy Christian Jarrett

The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult.  Continue reading “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”

Four-year-olds’ knowledge of gender stereotypes foretells their gender bias a year later

Boy with toy firetruckBy Christian Jarrett 

Group loyalty is woven into our DNA. After being allocated to a category on the flimsiest of grounds, such as their matching shirt colour, children will show impressive favouritism toward their new group members, and antipathy toward outsiders. No wonder that once children learn about genders, and become aware of their own – which begins to happen in earnest from around age three – they soon after usually begin to show profound signs of loyalty toward and preference for their own gender. As the authors of a new study in Child Development put it, “Around the world, girls tend to play with girls, whereas boys tend to play with boys. Such stark separation is stunning, yet as adults we tend to accept this segregation without a thought and sometimes even encourage it.”

The aim of the new research was to find out how gender-biased beliefs and behaviour develop from age four to five. The researchers hope their findings might help encourage children to be less biased against the opposite gender, and therefore “benefit relationships between girls and boys, and future relationships between women and men.”

Continue reading “Four-year-olds’ knowledge of gender stereotypes foretells their gender bias a year later”

There is a second “window of opportunity” for learning in late adolescence and early adulthood

human head model with open window on side idea conceptBy guest blogger David Robson

If you want to maximise a person’s intellectual potential, the general consensus for a long time has been that you need to start young. According to this traditional view, early childhood offers a precious “window of opportunity” or “sensitive period” for learning that closes slowly as we reach adolescence. It’s the reason that toddlers find it easier to master the accent of a foreign language, for instance.

This view has even shaped educational policy. If you want to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds, for instance, some psychologists had argued that you would do better to target primary schools, with diminishing returns for interventions later in life, as if badly performing teenagers were something of a lost cause.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at University College London has spent the last decade over-turning some of these assumptions, showing that the adolescent brain is still remarkably flexible as it undergoes profound anatomical changes. “The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” she told Edge in 2012. The transformation is particularly marked in the prefrontal lobes (located behind the forehead) and the parietal lobes (underneath and just behind the top of your head): two regions that are involved in abstract thought.

The upshot is that teenagers may go through a second sensitive period, in which they are particularly responsive to certain kinds of intellectual stimulation. A new paper from Blakemore’s lab, published in Psychological Science, builds on this idea, showing that our ability to learn certain kinds of analytical skills doesn’t diminish after childhood, but actually increases through adolescence and into early adulthood.

Continue reading “There is a second “window of opportunity” for learning in late adolescence and early adulthood”

By age three, children are already adept at figuring out who’s boss

Young boy, counting money and taking notesBy Christian Jarrett

Social power may be an abstract concept, but it has serious, concrete consequences. Certainly for our ancestors, and also for many people today, the ability to identify who is in charge might literally be considered a survival skill, as the boss is often the person controlling the distribution of food and other resources.

It’s already known that even infants expect smaller characters to give way to larger ones – in effect, social power based on physical dominance. A new paper in Child Development has explored the related question of when and how young children are able to discern social power from more subtle social dynamics between two parties, finding that already by age three children can interpret various forms of social power – resource control, goal achievement, and permission giving – to identify who’s in charge. The setting of social norms (such as what clothing ought to be worn) is recognised as a sign of social power at age 5-6, while perhaps surprisingly, actually giving orders was not recognised as marking social power until age 7–9.  Continue reading “By age three, children are already adept at figuring out who’s boss”

A cute mistake kids make about social reciprocity is bigger than we realised

Two little girls seem surprisedBy Christian Jarrett

If you’ve spent any time playing hide and seek with a young child you’ll know they make a cute mistake, which is to think that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. It works the other way too. If a person is blindfolded, children aged up to about four will say that they cannot see this person.

Psychologists explain the mistake as having to do with the significance kids place on mutual gaze, which reflects a special meeting of minds. To an extent, they’re right about this, but they take things a little too literally, mistakenly thinking that without reciprocity of gaze, neither party can see the other. Now a paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development has shown that this error is more far-reaching than previously documented. Preschoolers are also prone to thinking that if you can’t hear or speak to them, because your ears or mouth are covered, then they in turn can’t hear you or speak to you.  Continue reading “A cute mistake kids make about social reciprocity is bigger than we realised”

Some children are extra sensitive to parenting style, bad and good

By Christian Jarrett

Just over ten years ago, a fascinating journal article argued that some children are like orchids – they don’t just wither in response to a harsh upbringing, they also flourish in a positive environment, unlike their “dandelion” peers who are less affected either way. Since then, research into this concept has exploded. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin usefully gathers all that we know so far about one key aspect of this – the associations between children’s temperament (the forerunner to adult personality) and the way they respond to different parenting styles. The results suggest that those with a particular kind of highly emotional temperament are more likely to match the description of an orchid child*. Continue reading “Some children are extra sensitive to parenting style, bad and good”

New clues about the way memory works in infancy

Neurons in the beautiful background. 3d illustration of a highBy Alex Fradera 

Can we form memories when we are very young? Humans and non-humans alike show an “infantile amnesic period” – we have no memory of anything that happens during this time (usually up to age three or four in humans) which might suggest we can’t form very early memories. But of course it might be that we can form memories in these early years, it’s just that they are later forgotten. The idea that at least something is retained from infancy is consistent with the fact that disorders present in adult life can be associated with very early life events.

Now Nature Neuroscience has published a paper confirming that in rats some kind of memories are created during the amnesic period, but that these operate differently and are produced by different brain chemistry from adult memories. What’s more, such events may have a role in kickstarting memory system maturation. Continue reading “New clues about the way memory works in infancy”

Even preschoolers like to gossip

Secret talk
Want a good reputation? Better impress those gossiping preschoolers

By Christian Jarrett

Gossiping is a serious business because it helps us keep track of who to trust and who to avoid. To count as proper gossip, you have to give or receive new information about a third-party. That’s effectively what’s happening when a friend begins a sentence: “You wouldn’t believe what [insert name] did the other day …” – their anecdote is giving you precious information about the reputations of the people involved. Just how early in life do we start gossiping? A new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology shows that in its simplest form – telling someone else who to trust – gossiping is well on its way at age three. Continue reading “Even preschoolers like to gossip”

By age 3, kids know when you owe them one

If we’re being honest, most of us would admit that we keep an ongoing mental record of who has done what for whom among our relationships. It sounds a little churlish but this note-keeping is a basic aspect of social functioning that means we can avoid being taken advantage of by free riders, and also helps us decide who to turn to when we’re in need.

When does this sense of social fairness emerge? Developmental psychologists have previously demonstrated that pre-schoolers have a keen sense of reciprocity – for example, they will share more toys with other kids who have previously shared more with them. A new study in Developmental Psychology has flipped this around, showing that already by age three years, children also recognise when others are indebted to them. Continue reading “By age 3, kids know when you owe them one”

Neuro Harlow: The effect of a mother’s touch on her child’s developing brain

In the 1950s, the American psychologist Harry Harlow famously showed that infant rhesus monkeys would rather cling to a surrogate wire mother covered in cosy cloth, than to one that provided milk. A loving touch is more important even than food, the findings seemed to show. Around the same time, the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby documented how human children deprived of motherly contact often go on to develop psychological problems. Now this line of research has entered the neuroscience era with a study in Cerebral Cortex claiming that children with more tactile mothers tend to have more developed social brains. Continue reading “Neuro Harlow: The effect of a mother’s touch on her child’s developing brain”