Notes can be found as interactive webpage at

15: Cognitive Development

The malleability of the young brain #

  • Environmental factors play a huge role in cognitive development

    Rats raised in “enriched” environments with other rats and lots of toys develop larger brains (greater cortical mass) than those raised in “impoverished” environments

  • Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that a stimulating environment is more likely to facilitate development of a child’s neural connections
    • Most brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 2
    • Less than 3% of general population are intellectually challenged, but 10% to 30% of those in lower socioeconomic groups – research indicates that this is primarily due to environmental factors
      • Researchers found that pioneering day-care program at the University of North Carolina (Smart Start Initiative) cut incidence of intellectual disability by as much as 80% among kids whose unstimulating home environment put them at high risk for low IQ
      • By age 3, privileged children have heard 30 million more words than those who are underprivileged
    • Postmortem brain analyses reveal that highly educated people die with more synapses (17% more in one study) than those less educated due to greater neural development during younger years

Importance of touch #

Early experience of neglect can result in cognitive as well as social deficits

  • Mice that are not licked by their mothers as pups are more prone to developing learning and memory impairments later in life
  • Premature infants that are physically stroked in incubators show superior cognitive as well as physical and emotional development
  • It is estimated that simply stroking premature infants in neonatology wards is saving hospitals across the country approximately a billion dollars a year!

Comparison of brain of neglected Romanian infant raised in orphanage with that of a typical American infant

Cognitive development in early childhood #

Piagettian stages #

Controversies in Cognitive Science #

Do children suddenly develop specific cognitive abilities at a certain age? That is, are developmental milestones discrete or continuous?

  • Ex: Object permanence at age 8 months
  • Ex: Theory of mind at age 4 years
  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
    • Theory of how humans acquire, construct, and use knowledge
    • Piaget observed that children of different ages made different kinds of mistakes when solving problems
    • This led him to believe that children are not just “little adults” who know less; rather, they think and speak differently
    • He proposed that humans progress through four developmental stages
  • Ex: Object permanence: Understanding that object continues to exist even though they cannot see it
    • Infants do not understand object permanence, which is why they respond to the game of peek-a-boo
      • Once they develop object permanence, they quickly lose interest in the game
    • Infants also won’t reach under cloth for toy that is hidden
    • According to Piaget, object permanence is one of most important accomplishments in sensorimotor stage (age 0-2 years)

Formal operations stage (over age 11) – child develops ability to engage in hypothetical and deductive reasoning and to think about abstract concepts

  • Child may know that 4 + 1 is odd, that 6 + 1 and 8 + 1 are odd
    • However, before this stage, doesn’t understand that if you add one to any even number, the result will be odd
  • Child is asked to discover what makes a pendulum go fast or slow (length of string, weight of object, or initial force that sets pendulum in motion)
    • Before this stage, doesn’t understand that one needs to vary one factor and hold the others constant

Strengths #

  • Provides good overview of children’s thinking at different points
  • Fascinating observations

Weaknesses #

  • Stage model depicts children’s thinking as being more consistent than it actually is
  • Draw a line to show how the water line would look.
    • 50% or male undergraduates and 75% of female undergraduates failed this “formal operations” test! (Sholl & Liben, 1995)
  • Later research found that children are more cognitively competent than Piaget recognized

Figure A shows a bottle with some water in it. In Figure B, the bottle has been tilted.

  • Understates contribution of the social world
  • Does not explain underlying mechanisms

  • As mentioned, research has indicated that children are more cognitively competent than Piaget recognized; Ex: Object permanence:
    • Piaget thought understanding of object permanence developed in infants around the age of 8 months
    • However, Renée Baillargeon argued that Piaget’s finding was rooted in lack of motor ability in infants since experiments required infant to manually search for the hidden object by pulling a cover off to reveal the object
    • More recent studies have indicated that infants as young as 3.5 months of age and perhaps younger understand that objects continue to exist when hidden, that they can’t just disappear

      Babies show surprise when object seems to just disappear, demonstrating rudimentary understanding of object permanence

Alternate Theory: Vygotsky and Scaffolding #

  • Rejected Piagettian idea that children’s cognitive development happens in stages
  • Held that children develop independently of stages as the result of social interactions
  • Development ideally happens in the zone of proximal development, that is, what we can do with the help of a “more knowledgeable other”
    • Scaffolding can be used to support a child in developing skills

Development of self-recognition #

Rouge test of self-recognition

  • Spot of red rouge is surreptitiously placed on child’s nose, then child is placed in front of mirror
  • 15-month-olds respond by touching own nose to feel or rub off rouge
  • A younger child touches mirror or tries to look behind it to find red-nosed child
  • The only other animals capable of passing rouge test are other apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas – dolphins, orcas, elephants, and magpies

Mindreading #

Mindreading: the ability to understand other people’s mental state

  • Allows us to make sense of other people
  • Allows us to coordinate our behavior with theirs
    • Key to human social interaction
  • Roots of mindreading in early childhood lie in pretend play

Pretend play #

Pretend play, which typically emerges around 14 months, is considered a major milestone in cognitive and social development

  • Tends to follow a standard trajectory:
    • Self-directed: Pretending to carry out familiar activity, e.g., drinking from empty cup
    • Other-directed: Pretending that some object has properties it doesn’t have, e.g., pretending that a doll is saying something
    • Object substitution: Pretending that some object is a different object, e.g., that banana is a telephone
  • In pretend play, some of infant’s primary representations of the world and other people become “decoupled” from their usual functions while preserving their ordinary meaning

  • Both pretend play and mindreading involve metarepresentation – use of a representation to represent another representation, rather than referring directly to the world
    • Children with autism spectrum disorder show impoverished pretend play, as well as impairments in mindreading

False Belief Task #

  • Displacement Task
    • One of the best-known tests for mindreading ability
    • Tests whether children are able to abstract away from their own knowledge to understand that someone else can have different (and mistaken) beliefs about the world
  • Container test
    • Child is shown a familiar kind of container (M&Ms bag) that contains an unexpected object (marble)
    • Asked to predict what other person will think is inside
  • False belief task tests children’s theory of mind mechanism (TOMM) – their ability to identify and reason about other people’s complex mental states, such as beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears
    • Pretend play emerges during the second year of life, but children do not typically pass the false belief test until they are nearly 4
    • Indicates that the BELIEVES operation is much harder to acquire than the PRETENDS operation
  • However, research by Kristine Onishi and Renée Baillargeon demonstrated that children may develop an implicit understanding of false belief well before age 4
    • Experiment similar to false belief displacement task measured looking time in 15- month old infants
    • Results indicated that children looked significantly longer – indicating surprise – when actor’s behavior violated expectations that someone with an understanding of false belief would have
      • Suggests that children may develop an implicit understanding of false belief by 15 months, but that explicit understanding, involving explicit conceptual abilities manifested in verbal responses and explicit reflection, develops later

The Mindreading System #

TOMM (theory of mind mechanism) is the end point of the development of mindreading, but there are several stepping stones on the way

  • High-level mindreading is a complex phenomenon that depends upon a complex system of lower-level mechanisms that emerge at different stages of cognitive development
    • The intentionality detector: is responsible for perceptual sensitivity to purposeful movements
    • The eye direction detector: makes it easier to identify where other people’s attention is focused
    • The emotion detector: gives a basic sensitivity to emotions and moods, as revealed in facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
  • These first three basic components of mindreading are typically in place by the time the infant is 9 months old
  • In addition, the shared attention mechanism (SAM): occurs when infants look at objects (and take pleasure in looking at objects) because
    • They see that another person is looking at that object
      • I see (Mother sees the cup) OR
    • They see that the other person sees that they are looking at the object
      • Mother sees (I see the cup)
  • This requires infant to be able to embed representations – to represent that an agent is representing someone else’s representation
  • Makes possible a range of coordinated social behaviors and collaborative activities
    • Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties with this type of joint attention
      • There is a strong correlation between severity of social impairments and inability to engage in joint attention
  • Attunement between caregiver and child – child’s understanding that caregiver knows how he feels – is critical for normal development
  • From SAM emerges the empathizing system (TESS), which is responsible for affective responses to other people’s mood and emotions (as opposed to simply identifying them)
    • In Baron-Cohen’s model, TESS is a component of TOMM, but he also acknowledges that TESS and TOMM are distinct and can come apart, e.g., in psychopathy
  • Psychopaths can be very good at working out what is going on in other people’s minds
    • According to criminal psychologist, Robert Hare (Baibak & Hare, 2007):
      • About 1% of general population meets clinical criteria for psychopathy
      • Around 3-4% of CEOs meet criteria
    • More recent study by forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks indicated that around 21% of CEOs meet criteria for psychopathy, the same percentage as for prison inmates
      • Ability of psychopaths to do well in business is due in part to their ability to read others accurately, as well as their charm, ruthlessness, and ability to thrive on chaos

Two Models of Mindreading #

Dedicated theory of mind system #

  • Many cognitive scientists think there is a dedicated theory of mind system responsible for identifying and reasoning about other people’s beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes
  • Evidence for this view is provided by neuroimaging studies that have identified a number of brain areas that show increased activation during mindreading tasks, including
    • Medial prefrontal cortex
    • Superior temporal sulcus
    • Inferior parietal lobule (Saxe & Kanwisher)

Simulation #

  • In contrast, simulationists think that mindreading is carried out by “ordinary” information-processing systems that are co-opted for mindreading
    • According to standard simulationism, we understand the psychological states of others by analogy with our own psychological states
      • Research indicates that medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) plays an important role in self-reflection, lending support to this theory
    • Radical simulationism holds that mindreading does not involve representing other people’s psychological states but, rather, representing the world from their perspective
      • Neurocognitive research has found that the same mechanism that mediates the experience of a particular emotion is recruited when a participant recognizes that emotion in someone else
      • For instance, brain-injured patients show paired deficits – in problems experiencing relevant emotions and in identifying emotions in others
  • Fear
    • S.M., a patient with damage to amygdala on both sides of the brain does not experience fear and is also significantly impaired in her ability to identify expression of fear in others (Adolphs & Trannel, 2000)
  • Anger
    • Neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role in experience of anger
    • In rats, level of aggression can be directly manipulated by raising/lowering rat’s dopamine level
    • In humans, temporary blockage of dopamine production using sulpiride causes selective impairment in recognition of expression of anger (Lawrence, Goerendt & Brooks, 2007)
  • Disgust
    • Neuroimaging studies have shown that the insula is area of brain most associated with experience and recognition of disgust
    • N.K., a patient with damage to the insula and basal ganglia, has severe difficulty both in experiencing and recognizing disgust in other (Calder, Keane, Manes et al., 2000)
  • Damage to the somatosensory cortex severely compromises people’s ability to recognize and identify facial expressions (Kragel & LaBar, 2016)
    • Theory that when we see a facial expression of an emotion, we unconsciously imagine ourselves making that expression and that is what helps us to identify the expression
    • Injections of Botox impaired people’s ability to read facial emotions, as well as to experience emotions (Lewis, M.B., 2018; Neal & Chartrand, 2011; Havas, Glenberg, Gutowski et al., 2010)

Mirror neurons: neurons located in premotor area of frontal lobe that provide a neural basis for observational learning

  • Seeing a loved one’s pain triggers activity in many of the same brain regions as those activated in the person actually experiencing the pain (Iacoboni)
  • Researchers have identified a set of neurons in the premotor cortex that lights up when participants hear someone munching on potato chips or ripping paper
    • Same neurons flash when participants perform similar actions themselves
    • People who display particularly strong activity in response to sound cues alone score higher on a questionnaire gauging their ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes (Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh, & Keysers, 2006)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) #

Early research indicated that ASD is associated with impairments in emotion perception and empathy

  • Empathizing-systemizing theory (Baren-Cohen, 2009)
    • People may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions:
      • Empathizing: reading facial expressions and gestures
      • Systemizing: understanding things according to rules or laws, as in mathematical and mechanical systems
    • Individuals with ASD are more likely to to score low on empathy and high on systemizing
    • Also, parents and close relatives of those with ASD score higher on systemizing
  • Other research indicating impairments in emotion perception and empathy in ASD
    • Research has found atypical function in the occipital gyrus, fusiform gyrus, and amygdala, as well as in mirror networks, during face perception in those with ASD (Spezio, Adolphs, Hurley et al., 2007)
    • Individuals with ASD primarily show deficient performance on face perception when those faces display emotional expressions (rather than a neutral expression)
    • Also, eye-tracking studies have found that, whereas control participants fixate on major features of the face that convey emotions, such as the eyes, a majority of the time, those with ASD tend to fixate on portions of the face that do not contain core facial features
  • A new theory, however, proposes that the fundamental problem in ASD is not social deficiency or lack of empathy, but on the contrary, a hypersensitivity to experience, which induces an overwhelming fear response(Patil, Melsbach, Hennig-Fast et al., 2016; Markram, Rinaldi, & Markram, 2007)

    “I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”

  • Follow-up neuroimaging research has indicated that in children with ASD may show impairments in performance on face perception tests and reduced activity in fusiform gyrus primarily because they are avoiding looking at people’s eyes due to the discomfort and anxiety they feel when they do that
    • In the original studies, children with autism – who are highly sensitive to environmental stimuli – were placed in a deafening, claustrophobia-inducing MRI tube and instructed to perform tasks involving perception of faces
    • It’s likely they either simply stared unfocused into space to try to calm themselves or just shut their eyes until the whole ordeal is over (Davidson)

Follow-up study was done in which children were outfitted with eye-tracking goggles while in fMRI; Asked to classify faces as emotional or neutral

  • Children with autism classified about 85% of faces correctly
  • Non-autistic controls had a 98% accuracy rate
  • Children with autism also showed diminished activation in the fusiform gyrus
  • However, children with autism spent an average of 20% less time looking into the eyes of the faces in the pictures compared with controls
    • This explained virtually all of the variation in how activated the fusiform region was
  • Children with autism also evidenced greater activity in the amygdala during the face perception task
    • This was similarly correlated (negatively) with gaze fixation
  • Looking at faces made these children profoundly uncomfortable, even fearful
    • Only by looking away could they stop this onslaught – which is what they did (Dalton, Nacewicz, Johnstone et al., 2005)

Factors affecting cognitive development #

  • Early studies found that breast-fed infants later score higher on IQ tests than formula-fed infants

Mental stimulation #

  • The earlier children start reading books with their families, the better their test scores later
  • 6-year-olds given 6 weeks of music lessons (keyboard or voice) or drama lessons
    • Music group showed greater increases in full scale IQ (about 4 points) than those in drama and control groups
    • Drama group showed substantial improvements in adaptive social behavior that were not evident in the music group (Mol & Bus, 2011) (Schellenberg, 2004)

Retroviruses #

Research has found that exposure to infectious diseases around time of birth is a better predictor of IQ than education

  • Everyone has retroviruses in their bodies, but the body normally works hard to keep them under tight control
  • However, infections by agents like toxoplasma, herpes, or the Epstein-Barr virus around the time of birth destabilizes the defense system
  • The retrovirsuses pour into the newborn’s blood and brain fluid, triggering a huge immune response that causes inflammatory cytokines to flood the system…

    Active forms of retroviruses found in 49% of those with schizophrenia, compared with just 4% of normal controls (Perron, Mekaoui, Bernard et al., 2008)

Attempts to develop intelligence #

  • John Stuart Mill: Child prodigy; took walks with father every morning during which he summarized what he had learned the previous day
    • Age 3: reading Greek philosophy, Plato and Herodotus, in original
    • Age 8: reading Cicero, Virgil in Latin; responsible for teaching younger sibs Latin
    • Age 12: mastered calculus
    • Age 20: nervous breakdown
  • Virginia Axline’s Dibs: In Search of Self
    • Age 3: psychologists thought he was intellectually disabled/autistic
    • Given intensive play therapy
    • Turned out that he was very, very bright – scored at genius level on IQ tests
      • Parents were overachievers who had pushed him so hard to learn so much at such a young age that he basically just shut down

    Pushing a child too hard can backfire!

  • On the other hand, there are kids who push their parents i.e. Arjun Ayyangar:
    • By the time he was 2 years old, he could…
      • Name all the US presidents; identify all the states and their capitals, as well as countries around the world and their flags
      • Name 80 symbols of elements from the periodic table
      • Calculate squares and square roots
      • In addition, he was learning German from his father, Spanish from his mother, French and ASL from his cousin; and four Indian dialects from his grandmother
    • His parents didn’t think there was anything unusual about any of this until they started talking with the neighbors… “Arjun wants to learn something new everyday. He would get bored and cry if we didn’t teach him things.”
    • He’s now a 22-year-old musical prodigy who regularly performs for charity fundraisers as well as in piano competitions –

Role of motivation in learning #

  • Studies of expert tutors found that these tutors will do anything to avoid telling a child that he is wrong – even to the point of lying!
    • Tutoring – and learning – is 90% motivational
    • To teach child to read, need to find subject that child is interested in (e.g., sports magazines)

Growth mindset #

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work… This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment”
– Carol Dweck

  • Research by Blackwell and Dweck (2007) on students who were predominantly minority and low achieving
    • Control group was taught study skills
    • Experimental group got study skills and a special module on how intelligence can be improved that was taught in two lessons totaling 50 minutes
    • Those who got the special module showed dramatic improvement in study skills and grades
      • They pushed themselves harder
      • They tried new things
    • This very brief intervention basically reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing academic scores
      • The kids who had cultural reasons to be anxious about their skills were the ones most affected by the message, e.g., girls and math
  • Recent research has found that
    • Programs to develop growth mindset are most beneficial in students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun et al., 2018)
    • Low income students are less likely to hold a growth mindset than their wealthier peers
      • However, low income students who exhibit a growth mindset show academic performance as high as that of fixed mindset students from higher income brackets (Claro, Paunescu, & Dweck, 2016)
    • Parents and teachers with growth mindset do not necessarily pass that on
      • A sustained focus on the process of learning is critical for developing growth mindset (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017)

Praise and Academic Success #

Does praising kids boost their confidence and increase their likelihood of success?

  • 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart
  • But a growing body of research strong suggests that giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming
  • It might actually be causing it…

Study by Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell

  1. Fifth graders were given a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of fairly easy puzzles
    • Researchers told each student their score, then gave them a single line of praise
      • Half the children were praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at this”
      • Half were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard”
    • Researchers used just a single line of praise to see how sensitive children were
  2. Students were given a choice of test for the second round, either…
    • A test that would be more difficult than the first – researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting these puzzles; OR
    • An easy test, just like the first
    • Results:
      • Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles
      • Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test
    • The “smart” kids took the cop-out
  3. Final round: easy test like the first
    • Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30%
    • Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20%
    • What happened? If children who had been labeled “smart” tried hard and failed, they would lose their “smart” label, so better not to try hard

  • Another problem with praising ability: image maintenance becomes the primary concern
    • Over-praised kids are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down
  • Students were given two puzzle tests (Dweck)
    • Between the first and the second, they were offered a choice:
      • Learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test OR
      • Finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test
    • Students praised for their intelligence chose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare for the second test

  • When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special… (Lori Gottlieb)
    • What starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism
    • As adults, they don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement
    • They feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise
  • In general, it’s best to give specific, rather than general, praise
    • “Really impressive how much effort you put into getting that ball”
    • “Looking to pass that ball was a great move”
    • Not just “You played great!”

Aging and Cognitive Change #

  • Cross-sectional evidence for intellectual decline
  • Longitudinal evidence for intellectual stability
  • Reason for difference: older cohort from era in which people generally lesseducated, less affluent, and raised in larger families
    • Variability spread of scores in intellectual function greater in older adults than in younger adults
    • Decline greatest in people with low verbal ability
    • Age is less a predictor of intelligence than is proximity to death
  • The good news: Studies have consistently found that there is a small group of people who do not show stress-induced psychological/physical deterioration as they age!