A predominant, but unstated, thinking that biases many research paradigms is the assumption that children are just mini-adults with less well developed mechanisms than adults, but fundamentally using and relying on the same unitary cognitive mechanisms as the adults use. this has proven time and again wrong, and better psychologists now agree that children view the world in a fundamentally different manner from adults. I have covered some research in the past that showed for example that while differentiating between two color hues (categorical color perception), children show a more right hemisphere domination (non-verbal); while adults rely on Left hemisphere (verbal knowledge). Over development the RH processes are shadowed by the maturing LH verbal process, as far as it relates to Categorical Perception.

This recent PNAS article , by none other than the famed Chris Catham of the Developing Intelligence fame, is an effort in the same direction, showing that children use a different mechanism than adults when it comes to using cognitive control. while Adults use a more proactive cognitive control, the children rely on a reactive cognitive control. The authors do a good job of describing the proactive and reactive cognitive control so over to them:

Although sometimes derided as ‘‘creatures of habit,’’ humans develop an unparalleled ability to adaptively control thought and behavior in accordance with current goals and plans. Dominant theories of cognitive control suggest that this flexibility is enabled by the proactive regulation of behavior through sustained inhibition of inappropriate thoughts and actions , the active biasing of task-relevant thoughts, or construction of rule-like representations. Theories of the developmental origins of cognitive control converge in positing that children engage these same proactive processes, but in a weaker form, with less strength or stability , less resistance toward habitual responses, or degraded complexity.

However, children can be notoriously constrained to the present, raising the possibility that the temporal dynamics of immature cognitive control are fundamentally different from that of adults. Specifically, we hypothesized that young children may show ‘‘reactive’’ as opposed to ‘‘proactive’’ context processing , characterized by a failure to proactively prepare for even the predictable future and a tendency to react to events only as they occur, retrieving information from memory as needed in the moment. For lack of age-appropriate methods, the possibility of this qualitative developmental shift has not been directly tested.

They also describe the paradigm used beautifully so again quoting from the article:

In the AX-CPT, subjects provide a target response to a particular probe (‘‘X’’) if it follows a specific contextual cue (‘‘A’’). Nontarget responses are provided to other cue–probe sequences (‘‘A’’ then ‘‘Y,’’ ‘‘B’’ then ‘‘X,’’ or ‘‘B’’ then ‘‘Y’’), each occurring with lower probability than the target pair. This asymmetry in trial type frequency is critical for revealing distinct behavioral profiles for proactive versus reactive control. Proactive control supports good BX trial performance at the expense of AY trials. Maintenance of the ‘‘B’’ cue supports a nontarget response to the subsequent ‘‘X’’ probe; however, maintenance of the ‘‘A’’ cue leads to anticipation of an X and thus a target response (due to the expectancy effect cultivated by the asymmetry in trial type frequencies), which can lead to false alarms in AY trials . Reactive control leads to the opposite pattern. The preceding cue is retrieved when needed, that is, in response to ‘‘X’’ probes but not to ‘‘Y’’ probes. Such retrieval renders BX trials vulnerable to retrieval-based interference; the lack of such retrieval on AY trials means that false alarms are less likely in this case. Similarly, proactive control should lead to increased delay-period effort, whereas reactive control should lead to increased effort to probes.

What they found was consistent with their hypothesis. The reaction time data, the effort data gauged from puppilometry, the speed-accuracy trade off data all pointed to the fact that children used a reactive cognitive control mechanism while adults used a proactive cognitive control mechanism. This what they conclude:

By dissociating proactive and reactive control mechanisms in children, our findings call into question a previously untested assumption of developmental theories of cognitive control, that is, relative to young adults, weaker but qualitatively similar control processes guide the task performance of children. Of course, children and even infants may be capable of sustaining context representations over shorter delays than the 1.2 s used here, but such limited proactive mechanisms would seem unlikely to strongly influence most behaviors.

Further research is needed to determine the processes that drive the developmental transition from reactive to proactive control. This qualitative shift could reflect genuinely qualitative changes, for example, in metacognitive strategies that allow children to engage proactive control. Alternatively (or additionally), the underlying mechanisms for this qualitative shift could be continuous. For example, the gradual strengthening of task-relevant representations could allow proactive control to become effective, thus supporting a shift in the temporal dynamics of control. In any case, the developmental progression to be addressed is a shift from reactive to proactive control rather than merely positing incremental improvements with development.

I think these are steps in the right direction; I lean towards a stage theory account of development so am supportive of a dramatic developmental stage whereby reactive cognitive control mechanisms are replaced by proactive ones, although both strategies may be available to the critical age children equally. However, it may be the case that the neural architecture for proactive CC develops late (just like linguistic CP) and overrides the default reactive CC circuit. that dominance of Proactive CC over reactive CC to me should mark an important developmental stage.

Thanks Chris, for your wonderful blog posts and this paper!


Chatham, C., Frank, M., & Munakata, Y. (2009). Pupillometric and behavioral markers of a developmental shift in the temporal dynamics of cognitive control Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810002106

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