Children with a good understanding of others’ thoughts are more selective about whom they learn from, new research shows
- September 22, 2015
- Concordia University
- Children are not as gullible as we might think — and that’s especially true for those who have a good understanding of what’s going on inside someone else’s head, new research confirms.
New research shows that children are not as gullible as we might think — and that’s especially true for those who have a good understanding of what’s going on inside someone else’s head.
In a paper recently published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, researchers from Concordia University and the University of Ottawa show that even young children can be selective in whom they prefer to learn from.
“We already know that some preschoolers are more likely to learn from individuals with a history of making accurate claims over individuals who have been inaccurate or ignorant,” says the study’s senior author Diane Poulin-Dubois, a professor with Concordia’s Department of Psychology and researcher with the Centre for Research in Human Development.
“Kids have also been shown to prefer learning from nicer, more confident or more attractive individuals — attributes that don’t have anything to do with intelligence. We speculated that certain social-cognitive abilities might explain some of these learning differences,” she says.
To test the hypothesis, Poulin-Dubois worked with study co-author Danielle Penney and the study’s first author, Patricia Brosseau-Liard, who completed the study while she held a post-doctoral research position at Concordia. Brosseau-Liard is now on faculty at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology.
The three researchers took 65 children through a series of tasks that tested their ability to learn new words, as well as their “theory of mind” (ToM) — that is, the intuitive understanding of one’s own and other people’s minds or mental states.
The researchers tested whether the preschool-aged participants were more likely to learn new words from an accurate or inaccurate individual. They also examined whether the children were more likely to learn from a physically strong individual over a weak one. In addition, the researchers embarked on a series of quick ToM tests that required the children to empathize with another individual.
For the ToM tests, the participants were first introduced to several different figurines and given some background information about each: Mr. Jones likes carrots, Linda thinks her cat is hiding in the bushes, Polly and Peter have never seen what’s inside the box.
The children were then asked to theorize about what kind of snack Mr. Jones would want, where Linda would search for her dog and what Polly and Peter would think was inside the box.
A clear pattern emerged: the children who could accurately intuit the figurines’ thoughts and desires were more likely to believe the individuals with the greatest verbal accuracy, rather than those who had demonstrated the greatest strength. That is, the kids with better ToM skills were less gullible.
Brosseau-Liard cautions that theory of mind accounts for only a small variance.
“Even though theory of mind does predict children’s tendency to selectively learn from more accurate individuals, it does not completely explain this ability. There are likely many other variables influencing selective learning, including important social and cognitive attributes,” she says.
- Patricia Brosseau-Liard, Danielle Penney, Diane Poulin-Dubois. Theory of mind selectively predicts preschoolers’ knowledge-based selective word learning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12107
Jan. 31, 2013 — Students who work together and interact online are more likely to be successful in their college classes, according to a study published Jan. 30 in the journal Nature Scientific Reports and co-authored by Manuel Cebrian, a computer scientist at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego.
Cebrian and colleagues analyzed 80,000 interactions between 290 students in a collaborative learning environment for college courses. The major finding was that a higher number of online interactions was usually an indicator of a higher score in the class. High achievers also were more likely to form strong connections with other students and to exchange information in more complex ways. High achievers tended to form cliques, shutting out low-performing students from their interactions. Students who found themselves shut out were not only more likely to have lower grades; they were also more likely to drop out of the class entirely.
“Elite groups of highly connected individuals formed in the first days of the course,” said Cebrian, who also is a Senior Researcher at National ICT Australia Ltd, Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence. “For the first time, we showed that there is a very strong correspondence between social interaction and exchange of information — a 72 percent correlation,” he said “but almost equally interesting is the fact that these high-performing students form ‘rich-clubs’, which shield themselves from low-performing students, despite the significant efforts by these lower-ranking students to join them. The weaker students try hard to engage with the elite group intensively, but can’t. This ends up having a marked correlation with their dropout rates.”
This study co-authored by Luis M. Vaquero, based at Hewlett-Packard UK Labs, shows a way that we might better identify patterns in the classroom that can trigger early dropout alarms, allowing more time for educators to help the student and, ideally, reduce those rates through appropriate social network interventions.
Cebrian’s work is part of UC San Diego’s wider research effort at the intersection of the computer and social sciences, led by Prof. James H. Fowler, to enhance our understanding of the ways in which people share information and how this impacts areas of national significance, such as the spread of health-related or political behavior.
- Luis M. Vaquero, Manuel Cebrian. The rich club phenomenon in the classroom. Scientific Reports, 2013; 3 DOI: 10.1038/srep01174
Jan. 9, 2013 — The channel protein Pannexin1 keeps nerve cells flexible and thus the brain receptive for new knowledge. Together with colleagues from Canada and the U.S., researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum led by the junior professor Dr. Nora Prochnow from the Department of Molecular Brain Research describe these results in PLoS ONE.
In the study, mice comprising no Pannexin1 in memory-related brain structures displayed symptoms similar to autism. Their nerve cells lacked synaptic plasticity, i.e. the ability to form new synaptic contacts or give up old contacts based on the level of usage.
Pannexins are abundant in the central nervous system of vertebrates
Pannexins traverse the cell membrane of vertebrate animals and form large pored channels. They are permeable for certain signalling molecules, such as the energy storage molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The best known representative is Pannexin1, which occurs in abundance in the brain and spinal cord and among others in the hippocampus — a brain structure that is critical for long-term memory. Malfunctions of the pannexins play a role in the development of epilepsy and strokes.
No more scope in long-term potentiation
The research team studied mice in which the gene for Pannexin1 was lacking. Using cell recordings carried out on isolated brain sections, they analysed the long-term potentiation in the hippocampus. Long-term potentiation usually occurs when new memory content is built — the contacts between nerve cells are strengthened; they communicate more effectively with each other. In mice without Pannexin1, the long-term potentiation occurred earlier and was more prolonged than in mice with Pannexin1. “It looks at first glance like a gain in long-term memory,” says Nora Prochnow. “But precise analysis shows that there was no more scope for upward development.” Due to the lack of Pannexin1, the cell communication in general was increased to such an extent that a further increase through the learning of new knowledge was no longer possible. The synaptic plasticity was thus extremely restricted. “The plasticity is essential for learning processes in the brain,” Nora Prochnow explains. “It helps you to organise, keep or even to forget contents in a positive sense, to gain room for new inputs.”
Autistic-like behaviour without Pannexin1
The absence of Pannexin1 also had an impact on behaviour: when solving simple problems, the animals were quickly overwhelmed in terms of content. Their spatial orientation was limited, their attention impaired and an increased probability for seizure generation occurred. “The behavioural patterns are reminiscent of autism. We should therefore consider the Pannexin1 channel more closely with regard to the treatment of such diseases,” says the neurobiologist from Bochum.
Theory: feedback regulation gets out of hand without Pannexin1
According to the scientists’ theory, nerve cells lack a feedback mechanism without Pannexin1. Normally the channel protein releases ATP, which binds to specific receptors and thus reduces the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Without Pannexin1 more glutamate is released, which leads to increased long-term potentiation. This causes the cell to lose its dynamic equilibrium, which is needed for an efficient learning process.
- Nora Prochnow, Amr Abdulazim, Stefan Kurtenbach, Verena Wildförster, Galina Dvoriantchikova, Julian Hanske, Elisabeth Petrasch-Parwez, Valery I. Shestopalov, Rolf Dermietzel, Denise Manahan-Vaughan, Georg Zoidl. Pannexin1 Stabilizes Synaptic Plasticity and Is Needed for Learning. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (12): e51767 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051767
ScienceDaily (Aug. 8, 2012) — Stressed and non-stressed people use different brain regions and different strategies when learning. This has been reported by the cognitive psychologists PD Dr. Lars Schwabe and Professor Oliver Wolf from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in theJournal of Neuroscience. Non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling. “These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Lars Schwabe.
The experiment: Stress due to ice-water
The data from 59 subjects were included in the study. Half of the participants had to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes under video surveillance. This stressed the subjects, as hormone assays showed. The other participants had to immerse one of their hands just in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed the so-calledweather prediction task. The subjects looked at playing cards with different symbols and learned to predict which combinations of cards announced rain and which sunshine. Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task. During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.
Two routes to success
Both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy. The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe — the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory. Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy. They made their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words. The result of the brain scans was also accordingly: In the case of the stressed volunteers the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated — a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning. “Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus,” concluded Lars Schwabe. “So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behaviour — which saves the learning achievement.”
- L. Schwabe, O. Wolf. Stress modulates the engagement of multiple memory systems in classification learning.Journal of Neuroscience, 2012 DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1484-12.2012
ScienceDaily (July 11, 2012) — When humans learn, their brains relate new information with past experiences to derive new knowledge, according to psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin.
The study, led by Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology, shows this memory-binding process allows people to better understand new concepts and make future decisions. The findings could lead to better teaching methods, as well as treatment of degenerative neurological disorders, such as dementia, Preston says.
“Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future,” says Preston, a research affiliate in the Center for Learning and Memory, which is part of the university’s College of Natural Sciences. “Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences.”
The paper was published online in July in the journal Neuron. The authors include University of Texas at Austin researchers Dagmar Zeithamova and April Dominick.
In the study, 34 subjects were shown a series of paired images composed of different elements (for example, an object and an outdoor scene). Each of the paired images would then reappear in more presentations. A backpack, paired with a horse in the first presentation, would appear alongside a field in a later presentation. The overlap between the backpack and outdoor scenery (horse and field) would cause the viewer to associate the backpack with the horse and field. The researchers used this strategy to see how respondents would delve back to a recent memory while processing new information.
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) equipment, the researchers were able to look at the subjects’ brain activity as they looked at image presentations. Using this technique, Preston and her team were able to see how the respondents thought about past images while looking at overlapping images. For example, they studied how the respondents thought about a past image (a horse) when looking at the backpack and the field. The researchers found the subjects who reactivated related memories while looking at overlapping image pairs were able to make associations between individual items (i.e. the horse and the field) despite the fact that they had never studied those images together.
To illustrate the ways in which this cognitive process works, Preston describes an everyday scenario.
Imagine you see a new neighbor walking a Great Dane down the street. At a different time and place, you may see a woman walking the same dog in the park. When experiencing the woman walking her dog, the brain conjures images of the recent memory of the neighbor and his Great Dane, causing an association between the dog walkers to be formed in memory. The derived relationship between the dog walkers would then allow you to infer the woman is also a new neighbor even though you have never seen her in your neighborhood.
“This is just a simple example of how our brains store information that goes beyond the exact events we experience,” Preston says. “By combining past events with new information, we’re able to derive new knowledge and better anticipate what to expect in the future.”
During the learning tasks, the researchers were able to pinpoint the brain regions that work in concert during the memory-binding process. They found the hippocampal-ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) circuit is essential for binding reactivated memories with current experience.
- Dagmar Zeithamova, April L. Dominick, Alison R. Preston. Hippocampal and Ventral Medial Prefrontal Activation during Retrieval-Mediated Learning Supports Novel Inference. Neuron, 12 July 2012 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.05.010