The inflexible efficiency of babies

Photo by Flickr user imedagoze. Click for sourceScientific American Mind has an excellent article on how the inflexibility of young children’s brains can make them better learners than adults.

The piece riffs on the apparent paradox that humans develop into perhaps the most psychologically flexible of creatures and yet spend the longest with seemingly impaired mental functions. This is due to the relatively delayed development of the frontal lobes during childhood.

One particularly delayed skill is the ability to direct our attention – to the point where young children don’t have the flexibility to switch away from something that has grabbed their focus.

However, the article makes the point that this may be an evolutionary ‚Äúengineering trade-off” that actually makes children much better at learning certain rules – such as those often present in language.

To explain this, it helps to imagine you are playing a guessing game: You have to choose one of two options, either A or B, one of which leads to a prize, and one of which does not. After a few rounds, you notice that about three fourths of the time the prize is at A, and the rest of the time it is at B, so you decide to guess “A” 75 percent of the time and “B” 25 percent of the time. This is called probability matching, and it is the response pattern most adults tend to adopt in these circumstances. However, if the goal is to win the most prizes, it is not the best strategy. In fact, to maximize the number of correct predictions, you should always pick the more frequent outcome (or, in this case, always pick “A”).

Interestingly, if you were playing this kind of guessing game with a toddler, you would see that they would employ the maximization strategy almost immediately…

Children’s inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input, and this appears to play a crucial part in the establishment of stable linguistic norms. Studies of deaf children have shown that even when parental attempts at sign are error-prone and inconsistent, children still extract the conventions of a standard sign language from them. Indeed, the variable patterns produced by parents who learn sign language offers insight into what might happen if children did not maximize in learning: language, as a system, would become less conventional. What words meant and the patterns in which they were used would become more idiosyncratic and unstable, and all languages would begin to resemble pidgins.

The piece was written by researcher Melody Dye, who works in the lab where this research is being conducted. Also, don’t miss her article on why children have trouble acquiring color names, even far past the point when parents are confident that their pride and joy has mastered the skill.

Link to SciAmMind on ‘The Advantages of Being Helpless’.
Link to SciAmMind on ‘Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors’.

One Comment

  1. Posted July 15, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this great blog! I was recently lecturing in San Francisco on a topic related to neuroplasticity and came across this terrific TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain.html
    Fascinating!


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