“We often assume that as the brain develops, it will get more and better. So we think that adults are better and smarter than children. Our work shows that this is not always the case. Children’s brains may do things differently – and so they can sometimes do more than brains can.” grown ups “. This is the conclusion of researcher Yilan Zhong, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University who worked with graduate students at the University of Toronto on research that sought to quantify children’s and adults’ attention spans.
The tests were conducted on 24 adults, with an average age of 23, and 26 children, with an average age of 8. The suggestion was that the participants observe a series of four static illustrations: a bee, a car, a chair, and a tree and follow the instructions to pay more attention to one point or the other.
The images, for example, were accompanied by a background of gray dots, which moved in one of four directions: up, down, left, and right. But, at a certain point, everyone was instructed to ignore the moving dots and only press a button when one of the objects, the bee, for example, appeared more than once. At another stage, they were asked to ignore the objects and press a button when repeating the direction of movement of the dots.
The tasks were performed while the participants were in the MRI machine, so it was possible to measure the brain activity of each, and chart how attention shapes what is represented in the participants’ brains.
The results indicated that children’s apparent inability to pay attention allowed them to outperform adults when it came to retaining information they were instructed to ignore. That is, as might be expected, adults do a great job of focusing their attention on a specific task and not paying attention to information they are supposed to ignore. On the other hand, children absorb secondary information that they were instructed to ignore when given the same task, which also allows this information to be encoded in their brains.
“Although it’s not an outlandish idea that children’s attention skills are lower than those of adults, we didn’t know how attention impairment would affect the way their brains receive and retain other information,” Jung explains. He notes, “Our study fills in this knowledge gap and shows that children’s lack of interest leads them to retain more information about the world than adults.”
For Amy Finn, co-author of the research, the study highlights the fact that we cannot simply say that children’s attention span is poor and that they are unable to ignore distractions, but rather that brains are built to be sensitive to all information, regardless of whether it is relevant. Or not, and that children are more sensitive to more information.
“The study suggests that this approach of being more sensitive to the broader environment, at the expense of paying attention to specific things, is better for understanding complex systems. It may help forge a higher level of understanding of our whole environment.” Finn adds. For her: “Children are such little creatures that process information, better able to represent more of the world, with brains that reflect the world more accurately than ours.”
The team describes more details about the study in a Article published in the Journal of Neuroscience
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