BABIES ARE COMPETENT. ALL OF THEM.

BABIES ARE COMPETENT. ALL OF THEM.

BABIES ARE COMPETENT. ALL OF THEM.

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#freshfromthelab: Ana Maria Portugal reports on Prof Gaia Scerif’s contribution to the Symposium in Honour of Annette Karmiloff-Smith.

One of the amazing scientists that contributed to honouring Annette Karmiloff-Smith last month is Gaia Scerif. She came from the University of Oxford where she leads the Attention, Brain and Cognitive Development research group. Gaia completed her PhD with Annette in the early 2000’s, a mentorship that sparkled future collaborations and a deep friendship. Gaia investigates how genetic and environmental factors constrain the development of attention, and showed us some of her work with genetic disorders and with typical development.

 

Gaia’s seminar followed three top science ideas (all quoted from Annette):

 1) “Development itself is key to understanding developmental disorders” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1998)

This means that development is the interplay between genes, brain function and cognition, and its temporal trajectory is very important to its outcomes.

 2) “If you want to get ahead, get a theory” (Karmiloff-Smith & Inhelder, 1975)

This means that science (sound human knowledge) should be built on top of theory. We need to observe, derive a theory, and re-observe to validate it!

3) “Do not study children just because you like them” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, and circa 2000)

This means that development is the study of change and the study of the interactions between the cognitive system and the environment. Babies are not just cute little things. They are developing humans and observing their development gives us clues about how the brain is structured and functions.

 

More details on how Prof Gaia Scerif proceeded to do all that can be found below. But let us stop for a moment and reflect on how these ideas can inspire us as parents of both typically or atypically developing children.

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 1) “Development itself is key to understanding developmental disorders

Why is it that not all autistic children show the same repetitive behaviour? Why is it that not all introvert children want to avoid all relationships with new people? Why is it that not all bilingual children start speaking later than average?

It is all about how a specific genetic predisposition interacts with other genetic predispositions and the environment. A child with an introvert temperament, a passion for nature and parents who have a social life marked by few deep relationships will develop differently from a child with a similarly introvert temperament, but combined with a passion for food and parents who spend much time entertaining many guests in their home. The first may adapt very well into his environment and be able to fulfil himself in his passion, without missing out on a few one-to-one deep relationships. The second may find it life more challenging, ending up overeating to avoid engaging in numerous, shallow social interactions at his parents’ party. This is just an illustration, but would it not be helpful also for us parents to think about our children in terms of their unique set of characteristics and work towards making the most of it?

 2) “If you want to get ahead, get a theory” (Karmiloff-Smith & Inhelder, 1975)

 

It is so easy to become overwhelmed as parents. Deep in the chaos of sleepless nights and friendless days, we can easily feel that it’s all a big mess and the only option is waiting it out. “It’s a phase”, we hear other parents say… and we just hope this one will be over soon. But development is a series of “phases” and wishing for them to pass quickly equals wishing our child’s childhood away.

The truly amazing thing is that, if we approach those phases in a constructive way, we will end up learning so much from them and -big bonus!- we are going to be utterly blown away by the wonders of our child’s development, by our own progress by the complex, refined, beautiful work nature… and this will fill growing up as a family with joy and passion, however typical or atypical we may be.

So how do we “approach those phases in a constructive way”? We take take it from Dr Karmiloff-Smith and we work at building our theories. This will require systematic observation, informed hypothesising and empirical validation.  In other words, we first take a step back and observe what is actually going on (writing down a few notes a day can help – you can request our tool here), then we come up with our own little theory of why things are as they are (our theory will be informed by the info we have collected on the topic – you can attend one  of our workshops, read our blog to get your parental education started, but it will be YOU who come up with a specific theory about your specific child in a specific “phase”) and finally and crucially, we test our theory to see if it really is a good explanation for what we have observed.

That’s what we, at BabyBrains, call Learn through Observation, Validate through Experience and is encapsulated in our L.O.V.E approach.

The fabulous thing about it is that (as for scientists and babies) failure does not exist, because whatever you observe in your “validation” phase will bring you knowledge about your child, about yourself and about the world. And ultimately that’s what makes parenting so enjoyable: it is the deepening of a relationship with an ever-changing, ever-surprising, deeply loved human being.

 

3) “Do not study children just because you like them” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, and circa 2000)

 

Yet another encouragement to engage with our babies and children as with fully functioning and competent human beings in development. They are not accessories (things to have before you turn a certain age, like a car or a house), they are  not a chance for us to experience vicariously what we could not experience first-hand, they are not the pre-person they will be when they become adult.

Just like us, they are people working with their genetic predispositions, maturation levels and environments to make the most they can out of life. If we look at them closely, they will reveal so much about the human mind and its development throughout life.

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And now let us get back to Gaia’s work on babies and how they pay attention to the world.

Attention, particularly in children, is very complex to study. This is because attention is hard to define and measure. Attention can be the time a baby spends looking at an object (either the parent’s face or a toy), his/her capacity to disengage his/her look from a familiar object and orient to a novel one, or even the difficult ability to inhibit looking at distracting objects when attending for long to a more relevant target. All types of attention are very important for the development of your child and important roots that underpin cognitive abilities.

It is thought that attention plays a crucial role in biasing (i.e. filtering) information in favour of what is most relevant to the child’s short and long-term goals, by acting as a gate to what goes to further processing in the brain. This means attention can shape what a child learns from the environment and hence it’s very important during the first years of life when babies are learning quickly about their physical and social surroundings. Their brains cannot process all of it, so they need to filter out some information, and attention is just what you need then.

But when something gets the attention of your baby, the object of attention is likely to be taken to further cognitive processing (i.e. memory encoding, learning, action). This means that what and how long your baby attends to is going to influence what he/she learns. But Gaia wants to convince us that this can also happen in the other direction – what your baby just learnt influences what, where and how long he/she is going to attend in the future (and that incidentally was also what our Silvia has researched during her PhD.). This means that what is being learnt now is very powerful in shaping what subsequently is going to be learnt! How this loop works is one of the scientific puzzles Gaia’s interested.

One way that Gaia uses to tackle the attention puzzle is by studying genetic disorders associated with a high risk of attention difficulties. Her PhD dissertation pioneered mapping attention difficulties in small children with Fragile X Syndrome (FXS). FXS is a single gene disorder with a simple and well-defined genetic profile, but interestingly, with a high variability of individual strengths and weaknesses. How can it be that individuals diagnosed as having the same gene “silenced” can express such a wide range of abilities? How come that some patients are resilient?

 

 

Gaia studied if early differences in attention could explain later features of Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in FXS children. To answer this she ran a study with children diagnosed with FXS. She administered a classic psychological game where children needed to catch a fish or a cheese by responding to a target stimuli that occurred infrequently and irregularly in a stream of repetitive stimuli. She found that different domains of attention (either auditory or visual attention skills) predicted the ASD and ADHD traits respectively in these children 12 months later.

Silhouette of a child. Back to school. Doodle image. Stock Vector illustration.

Her take-home message from this research is that mapping genes to behaviour is not a simple story and that it all comes to the individual developmental trajectory.

Gaia’s work with genetic disorders showed that the way children develop attention abilities can predict later behavioural and intellectual outcomes, by promoting cascading effects over time. She then decided to move further by investigating attention in typical development.

She presented one study where she wanted to discover how attention was concurrently and longitudinally related to numeracy and literacy. She found out that some aspects of attention were contemporarily associated with precursors of literacy and numeracy, whereas others were related to future reading and math abilities. Her take-home message from this work is that there is good evidence that individual differences in attention skills are related to present and future classroom performance.

She is also interested in the potential mechanisms for the interplay between attention and learning and she suggests that memory can be a mediator. She presented a study where she showed that brain activity markers of attention could differentiate children with good and poor memory, and another showing how familiarity of stimuli (long-term memory) was influenced by how attention was being directed.

Gaia’s studies have implications on the scientific understanding of attention development but also on the design of training and education programs targeted to infancy and toddlerhood. Gaia thinks that attention cannot be trained alone as a muscle but should be exercised in the context of the skills we want to nurture.

Gaia’s scientific journey has contributed to the scientific understanding of attention processes and development by adding evidence of its bi-directional influence with prior experience. In her talk, Gaia argued that attention development is dynamic – it influences learning and memory but it is in turn influenced by what is learnt. What your baby just learned now, and what he keeps in memory from prior experience, will guide what he/she is going to attend in the near future – and this interplay can then shape the emergence of other specific skills, like numeracy and literacy.

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Silvia DALVIT MÉNABÉ

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  • to the purchaser (or prospective purchaser) of any business or asset that we are (or are contemplating) selling; and
  • to any person who we reasonably believe may apply to a court or other competent authority for disclosure of that personal information where, in our reasonable opinion, such court or authority would be reasonably likely to order disclosure of that personal information.

 

  • Except as provided in this Privacy and Security Policy, we will not provide your information to third parties.

 

6.    INTERNATIONAL DATA TRANSFERS

 

  • Information that we collect may be stored and processed in and transferred between any of the countries in which we operate to enable us to use the information in accordance with this Privacy and Security Policy.

 

  • Information which you provide may be transferred to countries (including but not limited to the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and China) which do not have data protection laws equivalent to those in force in the European Economic Area.

 

  • In addition, personal information that you submit for publication on our Website will be published on the internet and may be available, via the internet or across mobile applications, around the world. We cannot prevent the use or misuse of such information by others.

 

  • You expressly agree to such transfers of personal information.

 

7.    SECURITY OF INFORMATION

 

  • We will take reasonable technical and organisational precautions to prevent the loss, misuse or alteration of your personal information.

 

  • Of course, data transmission over the Internet is inherently insecure, and we cannot guarantee the security of data sent over the Internet.

 

  • You are responsible for keeping your password and user details confidential. We will not ask you for your password (except when you log in to our Website).

 

8.    AMENDMENTS

 

  • We may update this Privacy and Security Policy from time-to-time by posting a new version on our Website. You should check this page occasionally to ensure you are happy with any changes.

 

  • We may also notify you of changes to this Privacy and Security Policy by email.

 

9.    YOUR RIGHTS

 

You may instruct us not to process your personal information for marketing purposes, by sending an email to us. In practice, you will usually either expressly agree in advance to our use of your personal information for marketing purposes, or we will provide you with an opportunity to opt-out of the use of your personal information for marketing purposes.

 

10. THIRD PARTIES

 

The Website contains links to other websites. We are not responsible for the privacy policies or practices of third party websites.

 

11. UPDATING OF INFORMATION

 

Please let us know if the personal information which we hold about you needs to be corrected or updated.

 

12. CONTACT

 

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy or our treatment of your personal information, please write to us by email to silvia@baby-brains.com.

 

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