Monday, July 20, 2009

The Beginnings of Reason - Earlier Than You Think

Developmental Psychologist Jean Piaget observed that if you presented 10-11 year olds with a counterfactual syllogism such as:

All cats bark. (major premise)
Muffins is a cat. (minor premise)
Does Muffins bark?

Most children fail to solve the syllogism because they answer, "No, cat's don't bark." But when a clever psychologist group decided to retry the questions in a playful tone of voice, they actually found that children as young as 2 years old could deductively reason (hmmm- now do we in our school systems assume that children reason that early?).

Piaget had assumed that children did not develop the capacity for abstract reasoning until they were 11 years old or so, but he was wrong. Children were expecting the answers should be given on the basis of real-world reasoning and not as a hypothetical or "lets pretend" scenario.

Peter Gray (below) also makes the point that when college students were given the candle/box of tacks/matches experiment, most failed to figure out how to attach a candle that could be lit to a bulletin board...unless they had watched a slapstick movie before the experiment. The researchers concluded that better problem solving occurred with a 'happy mood', Gray concludes it was playfulness, and we would agree. That is the principle of course for many companies today that require creativity problem solving activity on the part of their employees on a daily basis (e.g. Pixar, Google, etc.).

Researchers from the Bunge lab also confirmed that children as young as 6 do indeed reason, but they were surprised to see that the area implicated so importantly from adults (RLPFC or rostrolateral prefrontal cortex) in fluid reasoning only activated after the children chose their answers! This result triggered some soul searching on the part of the investigators (the paradigms were suboptimal because they could answer from experience rather than 'pure analogy', kids are too impulsive - they answer before their RLPFC activates, etc.), but another interesting possibility from this result is that kids are more like to reason from personal experience than pure abstraction or impersonal premises.

More questions: If children learn so well from personal experience and reasoning, are we stimulating enough direct / personal learning experiences in our education of young children? Do we encourage enough play while we encourage students to problem solve? and Have we been grossly underestimating the reasoning ability of young children?

As a parent, I'm fairly flummoxed at how Piaget could have been so wrong! Could he not have noticed the reasoning of young children? Often when very bright children come to very wrong conclusions on the basis of reasoning, we've found that the errors are more with their reasoning from the basis of insufficient experience than errors of the reasoning process itself.

How Play Promotes Reasoning in Children and Adults
Development of Fluid Reasoning fMRI pdf
Wikipedia: Thinker


  1. somehow happy mood enhances the speed of the higher level brain, maybe because the brain has more serotonine going arround, and that can make them more exited and accelerated about discovering or solving stuff.

    Evidentely young kids have different mechanisms for answering questions than more adult people do, they differ in the information they use for this by varying the amount of use of reason and on how much they rely on their own experience. They also have different answering systems than the adults themselves, probably cause kids had not yet fully developed some parts of this answering/decision mechanism..

    Very interesting your question about overestimulating reason and underestimulating I think this is done, quite often and is not the best way to help children develop themselves,

  2. Thanks for this very interesting article. I've been working in education for the last 15 years and must say that it's good to see that neuroscience might soon be able to quantitatively support my teaching philosophy. Fun = Engaging = Learning. My obsession is best captured in the following quote from Dr. Pat Wolfe:

    Educators are perhaps more captivated by brain research than the general public. The reason is not difficult to understand; the brain is the organ of learning but we haven't understood how it works! Our students' brains have been black boxes with their secrets locked inside. The knowledge base from which we've generated our decisions has been limited by what the behavioral sciences could provide which hasn't always been sufficient. Of necessity we've operated intuitively. Intuition has worked well in many instances but has left us without the ability to ariculate our craft to others. Because of this, we've become, as Bob Sylwester puts it, a folklore profession. This lack of scientific knowledge has put us at the mercy of lay boards and politicians who have sometimes made decisions that are unrelated to what we know is best for students.

    Wolfe, however, goes onto warn against the adoption of "break throughs" in neuroscience which has led to a pseudoscience reponsible for terms such as "brain-based classroom environments" and even "'Brain-compatible Worksheets...' which may be an oxymoron!"

    I wouldn't worry that teachers aren't aware of the need to engage our youth - although we haven't been able to back it up with numbers, many of us are intuitlively aware of the role of play in effective learning. The major concern I see is that in a climate of increasing accountability and overly prescribed learning activities aimed at taking the human (and accompanying intuitions) out of the practice of educating, we don't have enough real science backing up what is blatantly obvious to many of us.

    Hopefully one day with the help of neuroscience; neuroplasticity et al., we will be able to transcend the concept of teaching as a folklore craft.

  3. Thank you very much for giveing me such an interesting information paul, and I guess you are write about teachers careing about how the brain works, but I guess since you are expose a lot to it, you can intruitively as you say learn also a lot
    Take caer