Monday, January 04, 2010
Cognition Without Control - ADHD, Gifted IQ, and the Learning-Performance Trade-Off
Interesting article from UPenn / Stanford speculating on the benefits of Cognition without Control:
"Late prefrontal development clearly has some negative consequences for childhood
behavior. Yet despite this, there are many examples of learning tasks (e.g., language acquisition)at which children do better than adults...we propose that these differences may reflect the costs and benefits of an immature frontal cortex (hypofrontality) that arise from the inherent tradeoffs between learning and performance. That is, a system optimized for performance may not be optimal for learning, and vice versa."
Reflecting on this research, from the LA Times reporter Melissa Healy:
"In those crucial four years, a toddler's accumulation of knowledge about her world may be unhampered by the discipline imposed by the prefrontal cortex...her prefrontal cortex doesn't stand in the way and try to keep her "on task." And her underdeveloped powers of attention will keep her from getting bogged down by pesky exceptions to rules of grammar or syntax. So, she'll always apply the most general rules she knows -- say, that adding an "s" makes things plural.
The authors call this period of disorderly learning "cognition without control."
This is a theory, not a finding, note the authors, led by the University of Pennsylvania's Sharon L. Thompson-Schill: that evolution may have favored a delay in the maturation of the brain's "braking system" as a means of allowing rough-but-rapid learning of complex matters such as language and social conventions. But it's a theory that might help clinicians and educators begin to identify the best windows for teaching very young children and for helping kids with developmental differences to learn as well."
The researchers go on to speculate that delay in the maturation of the prefrontal cortex is no accident; it may have an important purpose - to foster flexible and broad thinking in our earliest life experiences. Perhaps as brains mature, explosive early childhood learning recedes, giving way to more established pathways and performance more than new learning. If this is so, though - then maybe we should rethink prefrontal coercion strategies in the early years - whether they be educational or pharmacological.
As it turns out, kids with ADHD or kids with superior IQ (see above) have greater delays in the maturation of their prefrontal cortices than non-ADHD or regular IQ age-matched peers. The trend is the opposite in children with autism, though - young autistic children show an early maturation of prefrontal cortices.
So what would an optimal education look like if this is a purposeful pattern of brain development? Is it a mistake to force prefrontal development too early (with stimulants or other means)? What are the ideal times for stimulants for children with ADHD symptoms? Is it jumping the gun to prescribe to preschoolers, kindergarteners, or first graders?
Perhaps Alfred North Whitehead's ideas about the Aims of Education aren't so far off about all this. Whitehead proposed 3 developmental stages of education - the stages of romance (childhood), precision (adolescence), and generalization (young adulthood).
Superior IQ children have delayed prefrontal cortical thickness pdf