Cognitive control: when less is more!
Yesterday I wrote a post about ADHD and creativity and how the frontal lobes hypo-function and dopamine may be the mediating factors involved. Today I serendipitously came across this article by Thomson-Schill et al in which they posit that frontal cortex hypofunction during childhood is beneficial, on average, as it enables convention learning and thus linguistic acquisition.
What they basically mean is that frontal cortex has been found to be involved in cognitive control i.e. in higher cognitive functions like planning, flexible thinking etc ; and the frontal cortex does this by biasing the competitive responses elicited by a stimuli by goals /existing beliefs / other task related information that is maintained in the working memory. To take an example, cognitive control is often measured by tasks such as the stroop task. the strrop task measures how well you are able to suppress the prepotent response tendency of naming the color-term itself by the task-relevant constraint that you name the color of the term instead. when a color term like ‘green’ is presented in Red color, then the green as well as red linguistic response compete with each other. In the absence of frontal biasing in teh direction of color ie.e red, we are apt to name the color-term itself i.e green by default which is the habitual response. Children , who have less well-developed frontal cortices generally perform poorer at the stroop task than adults as their frontal cortex does not bias or tilt the scales in favor of the color used rather than the color-term presented.
The authors claim that this inability to bias results on the basis of pre-existing knowledge/beliefs leads to a greater ability to learn. They posit that learning conditions (that maximize competition ) are different from performance conditions (where one response needs to be selected or competition minimized) and the child’s brain is optimized for learning by not having frontal inhibition and control. An example they give is filtering noise form signal which the child are able to do, but adults can’t. for eg. if a new language has a phrase ‘et tu brute’ and 75 % of times it is in this form and 25% of times it is of the form ‘et tu vous Brute’, then adults will tend to probability match and select the utterance/ utter themselves phrase ‘et tu brute’ 75% of times and ‘et tu vous Brute’ 25 % of times. This is because when they want to utter the phrase their existing knowledge that sometimes the other phrase is also used, makes them sensitive to variations. In child’s brain on the other hand a competition between the two phrases takes place and as there is no moderating influence involved, the outcome hundred percent of the time is ‘et tu brute’. Thus, they are able to learn conventional meaning of a phrase/word etc more easily than an adult who gets bogged down by variations. Thus sometimes, less is more!
However the reason I got hooked to this study is the implications they draw for ADHD/Autism and creativity. I’ll quote them verbatim on the issue:
Central to our proposal is the claim that the timing of PFC development has been the target of selection and, therefore, that variations in timing are functionally meaningful. Recent neuroimaging studies have revealed potentially important differences in the timing of PFC development across typical and atypical individuals. Variations in the trajectory of PFC maturation (based on repeated measures of cortical thickness) have been associated with cognitive measures in typically developing children (Shaw et al., 2006). Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibit a delay in cortical maturation that is most prominent in the PFC (Shaw et al., 2007). In contrast, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) undergo early maturation of the PFC (Carper, Moses, Tigue, & Courchesne, 2002). A better understanding of the implications of these timing changes for both learning and performance may illuminate some of the behavioral and cognitive patterns associated with these diagnoses (e.g., impaired acquisition of social conventions in ASD), as well as offer a fertile ground for testing the validity of our hypothesis that typical PFC development involves a trade-off in favor of learning to the detriment of performance in infancy and early childhood.
This gels quite nicely with what I have been speculating for some time, that ADHD and Autism are opposed and that ADHD is childhood equivalent of psychosis. ADHD kids are bound to be good learners, more divergent creative and have better social and linguistic skills. Autistic kids on the other hand would be better performers (say child prodigies in memory etc) , more convergent thinkers, and have less social and linguistic skills- one mechanism of which may be lesser ability to learn social and linguistic conventions- like the usage of metaphorical terms.
On creativity this is what the authors say:
Creativity—the ability to approach an object or a situation from an alternative perspective—may benefit from the unsupervised competition that occurs in the absence of prefrontal control. Consider one common assessment of creative thinking, the Alternative Uses Task: When attempting to think of ways to use an object in some atypical way, adults struggle. In this case, an active PFC might, paradoxically, hinder flexible thinking, because the representation of the object is sculpted by prior experience and expectations. Interestingly, young children are immune to this kind of functional fixedness (German&Defeyter, 2000). Successful performance in similar tasks of ideational fluency has been associated with EEG changes in prefrontal regions (e.g., Mo¨lle, Marshall, Wolf, Fehm, & Born, 1999). Furthermore, patients with PFC damage solve insight-problemsolving tasks better than do their healthy counterparts (Reverberi, Toraldo, D’Agostini, & Skrap, 2005). This apparent flexibility of behavior can be interpreted as a stimulus-driven response: A mind that is at the mercy of its environment is not shaped by expectations or beliefs. This interpretation highlights a parallel between functional fixedness and probability matching, in that both of these ‘‘adult’’ phenomena involve biasing stimulus–response associations based on expectations. This proposal suggests new avenues of investigation into the processes that support creative thought and into putative relations between creativity and psychological disorders associated with hypometabolic prefrontal function (i.e., a state of lower energy consumption in the PFC, as in bipolar disorder, for example).
The above analysis of creativity in terms of hypofunction of frontal cortex bodes well for my theories of creativity-ADHD relationships as well as creativity-psychosis (bipolar etc) relationship, both of which involve developmental or functional hypofucnction of frontal cortex.
Thompson-Schill, S., Ramscar, M., & Chrysikou, E. (2009). Cognition Without Control: When a Little Frontal Lobe Goes a Long Way Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (5), 259-263 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01648.x
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