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


  1. What about autistic kids with superior IQ? Interesting.

  2. Saja, this is a great question. At this point, it is just a theory.

    One could argue that it would be better development is favored for superior IQ autistic kids over regular IQ autistic kids -because the autism is driving stronger prefrontal pathways while the superior IQ is working against it.

    It also could suggest that efforts to reduce prefrontal activities in early childhood autism might bode better for greater brain flexibility later. This could be a complex issue though. Some see early powerful prefrontal activities of childhood autistics as gifts and personal strengths - do you de-emphasize strengths in this kids in order to have a more 'non-autistic' brain later?

  3. This is interesting. I am confused about something though. I thought that the prefontal activity you are talking about deals with things like impulse control and attention. but aren't these weaknesses in autistic children? My son has a dx of pdd-nos, but in a lot of ways he really does seems like he has a really extreme case of adhd, in that it has been much harder to teach him, e.g., not to play with electrical outlets, and it's hard to get and keep his attention. He's been extremely distractible since he was a very very young infant. When he was only a few months old I (rightly, as it turns out) worried because he wouldn't gaze with me for more than a couple of seconds. He was also obviously hyper. His then-pediatrician even joked, "Well, we don't *usually* diagnose adhd when they're only 4 months old." It's true that sometimes it's just like he was born with a very strong "mind of his own," (ala the einstein syndrome books), yet other times it seems clear he doesn't have average levels of impulse control ... What am I missing about how these things fit together? Is it just ... erratic or selective? Or ... maybe (as I've wondered for some time) my son is another "mislabeled" child ....

  4. There are many different neurobiological differences in wiring that underlie big behavioral categories like PDD-NOS or autism, and the prefrontal cortices do a lot of things. But prefrontal activities that might be relevant to this discussion may be action of the prefrontal cortex to inhibit emotions, organize, and prioritize. In autism, strong prefrontal activity may inhibit emotions and lead to more analytical, but less flexible thinking, whereas weak prefrontal activity might see more emotional disinhibition and flexible thinking.

  5. Anonymous4:39 PM

    Hmmm ... does the same individual ever have strong prefrontal activity and sometimes have weak prefrontal activity? I am wondering about a scenario where the individual maybe seems less "attached" in some ways (atypical separation anxiety, for example), and yet maybe has more tantrums and melt-downs than usual (maybe). Is that possible?

  6. Interesting. I came across your blog doing my regular hunt for any information on visual agnosia (and similar sensory memory impairments). I've speculated before, that the rapid eye movements I experience when awake (not REM but honestly more like a barely perceptible ADHD of the eyes that even continues when they're closed) is tied to my agnosia and prosopagnosia. Even if that is a contributing factor, this makes me wonder if the entirety of it can't be ascribed to a single defective sector in the brain. And if that's true, if other parts of the brain might have compensated for the deficiency.

    For instance, my sister and son both have varying forms of visual agnosia (each even varies from mine) and we're all what would be called Gifted intellectually. My mother has none of the impairments we have, has a closer to just above average IQ and has never demonstrated significant ADD symptoms (my father died when I was small, so I can't compare there). But we each also have different abilities that our impairments should also prevent. I write great visual imagery without being able to visualize it myself. My sister is very good at video games she should have similar trouble to me in. And my son has taught himself to play two musical instruments.

    It makes we wonder if we're not carrying a hereditary neuro-chemical deficiency that our brains compensated for in only slightly varying ways. I would love to see information on any connections between pre-frontal development and those conditions.

    I'm also sharing your blog link with my readers. About a year ago I wrote a rather lengthy explanation of my own visual memory problems, and the struggles I had to even find the term "visual (object) agnosia." I've had more than a few people find my article on the same hunt, and every comment includes the same request, "If you find ANY new information, let me know please!"

  7. Anonymous3:14 PM

    That is enough to give the mother of a gifted child diagnosed with ADHD anxiety. At what point do we decide that it is time to intervene with medication or other means? My child is lucky enough to be in a full time gifted program, so I can honestly say that her ADHD symptoms are beyond that of her peers, but I also know that there are at least two other children in her classroom on medication for ADHD. We also have her receiving neurotherapy with a psychologist in the hopes that we can eliminate or reduce her medication. After reading this article I wonder are we forcing her brain to work in a way that goes against her natural development? I would certainly be interested in additional research on the prefrontal cortex of the gifted and how it is affected by medication and neurotherapy.

  8. Very tough decisions, you are absolutely right, Anon. If a child is learning well, then we tend to hold off on medicating. The long term benefits are not known and at least some studies suggest medications could have effects on extroversion or drive.