Category Archives: development

Parenting Styles: an SDT Informed Perspective

In my previous posts I have elaborated on SDT and how it provides insights as to the relation between motivation and personality and to the supportive contexts that satisfy basic needs and thus lead to well-being.

To recap, SDT, as extended by me, posits that there are four basic psychological needs that need to be satisfied for all human beings for them to be happy and flourishing. These needs are needs for autonomy or to be able to own and make one’s own choices; needs for competence or to be able to successfully excel at tasks; needs for relatedness or to be securely and intimately tied to others; and need for meaningfulness or to be able to create and bask in meaning and purpose.

SDT also posits that socio cultural contexts and situations are differentially related to well-being as they are differentiated in terms of how supportive or thwarting of basic needs they are. Today I wish to apply this lens to parenting and showcase how early (and ongoing) parent child interactions have different implications for current and future well-being of the child.

At the outset, I want to clarify that while my approach is inspired and steeped in SDT, it deviates considerably from the standard SDT model.

Standard SDT literature on parenting posits that if the parents are autonomy supportive, provide structure and are involved, then they are doing the right thing as this will lead to satisfactions of the basic psychological needs of the child and thus lead to healthy outcomes. the figure below shows what one means by these conditions of autonomy support, structure and involvement.

Parenting supports (from Coursera)

Let us start with involvement. And let us look at both good and bad parenting. I consider this to be about the Relatedness need. The input variable from parents is warmth or affection and the output variable is attachment with the parent. A good parent showers love, affection, care and warmth unconditionally; or in other words provides Unconditional Positive Regard (UCR) – this I posit leads to secure attachment in the child. However, some parents make their love and warmth contingent on outcomes; that is called Parenting Conditional Regard (PCR) and this I believe leads to insecure attachment. This is further of two types: a negative PCR where affection is primarily withdrawn in case the outcome is not desired, leading to avoidant attachment or deficient model of other. The other is positive PCR where affection is excessively endowed in case the outcome is desired, leading to dependent/anxious attachment or deficient model of self. While the good parent considers his/ her child unique, the bad parent either considers the child as having contingent worth or at the other extreme to be special and above everyone else. This parenting dimension is all about being available to the child when he needs and may be labeled emotional help by the parent.

Let us now look at autonomy support. This is clearly about the Autonomy need. The input variable from parents is socialization by either persuading or coercing and the output variable is internalization of rules and regulations. A good parent takes perspective of his/ her child, provides choices and offers rationale – all with an aim to influence and persuade without any overt or covert coercion; this leads to internalization of values and motives leading to autonomous motivation. In simple words, as the child ‘buys in’ rather than is forced to do something, he is more likely to feel an ‘origin’ and not a ‘pawn’. However, some parents try to control and coerce their child to behave in a particular way; this leads to controlled forms of motivation/ self regulation in the child. When rewards or showering of incentives is used to control the child it may lead to external regulation, while when punishments or withdrawal of incentives is used to control the child, then it may lead to introjected self regulation. While a good parent likes to negotiate with the child, a bad parent either threatens or bribes the child. This parenting dimension is all about shaping the child’s behavior by providing some motivational structure.

Consider next structure. This is about Competence. The input variable from parents is Just Enough Help/ scaffolding in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the output variable I believe is the child’s mindset and sense of self efficacy. A good parent provides Just Enough Help or scaffolding in the ZPD so that the child is adequately challenged and his ability is able to meet the expectations; this leads to a grounded sense of self efficacy and possibly growth mindset, as the child is able to see how he is making progress with adequate support. However, some parents are not cognizant of/ insensitive to the ZPD and either push their children above the ZPD or are content with performance that is sub ZPD. This leads to problems with self efficacy and a fixed mindset. Those who try to stretch their child’s ability and set high expectations– and push their children to achieve those high expectations that are beyond their (current) abilities, may lead the child to develop a superiority complex and a fixed mindset characterized by impression management. On the other hand, those who do not challenge and support their child enough may give rise to children that suffer from inferiority complex or fixed mindset characterized by self-handicapping. While a good parent is available when needed, a bad parent is either helicoptering or putting too much pressure. To me this parenting dimension is all about providing instrumental help to the child in the right amount.

Lastly, let us also take a look at the need for Meaningfulness. The input variable this time is parents feedback about the child’s self and the output variable is the child’s internal self-guides. A good parent provides realistic feedback to child about his/ her abilities, etc in a non evaluative and informational format. This leads to the development of an actual self guide that is accurate and based on facts. Some parents however provide either sugar coated or needlessly bitter evaluative feedback to the child and this may lead to the development of discrepant self guides that are fictional and not in touch with reality. The parent who praises excessively and is say strengths based and focuses on what is present/ possible about the child will lead to the development of an ‘ideal’ self guide in the child. The parent who is excessively critical and deficit based and focuses on what is lacking/ needed in the child, will lead to the development of an ‘ought’ self guide in the child. While a good parent leads to realistic and in touch with self concepts, a bad parent leads to out of touch self concepts that don’t feel authentic.

That brings us to the end of my thesis that a good parent is warmly affectionate, non evaluative and informational when providing feedback, uses reason to influence and persuade rather than coerce and sets reasonable expectations for the child and supports him/ her is his/ her journey.

A note before we leave: all of us are good parents and bad parents at times; while I have used the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents above my intention is to draw attention to our impact when we are acting as a good / bad parent and hopefully influence more and more parents to use better parenting techniques than they may be using or relying on currently.

Supportive Contexts for Growth and Development: an SDT Perspective

Self Determination Theory(SDT) posits that all humans require some nutriments to grow and develop; just like plants need nutriments like sunlight, water, nutrients etc to flourish, so do humans have some basic human needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness and meaningfulness (my addition) to develop and grow and thrive. If these needs are fulfilled (just like if the plants get sunlight , water and nutrients) then this leads to good outcomes like enhanced well being and optimal functioning and good relationships and purpose in life. However, if the needs are thwarted then ill-being and soured relationships, stagnation and nihilism may prevail.

SDT also posits that the sociocultural environment and situations and contexts can be more or less supportive of the basic psychological needs. If the sociocultural environment and situation/ context is more supportive of autonomy, competence, relatedness and meaning, then that leads to more growth and flourishing and better development over time.

Let’s just expand on this a little. We will consider basic psychological needs in infancy and childhood and see what activities or systems are involved in their satisfactions and what consequences it may have on the developmental trajectory.

Consider the need for autonomy; an infant/ child is typically exploratory and unless constrained exercises his/ her choice by exploring the environment. The parent has to set some limits on exploration to prevent harm and thus this conflicts with the child’s need for autonomy. Early on they learn that exploring unknown territories can lead to adverse outcomes and if parents are too permissive they quickly learn the emotion of fear. On the other hand they also have an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of interest that makes them find novel things and places attractive and hence worth exploring. If their need for autonomy is reasonably honored, they quickly form a concept of SELF that is distinct from caregiver. They realize, and start regulating, their emotions and an autonomy supportive environment leads to their emotional development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories, they successfully navigate the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage.

Consider next the need for competence; an infant/ child typically likes to explore the limits of what they can do/ hope to do via play – both physical and symbolic. The parents/ adults typically provide some feedback on what is acceptable in terms of play to ensure that the right types of play are being indulged in to develop adult capability. For eg, if an infant tries to walk before crawling they will support the age appropriate crawling related play first. Early on infants/ children realize that playing in a free wheeling manner may lead to disappointment and sadness. On the other hand they also have an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of enjoyment that makes them find novel activities and objects interesting and worth playing with. If their need for competence is reasonably honored, they quickly become TASK-oriented, rather than ego oriented while indulging in any activity. They realize and start regulating their behaviors and a competence supportive environment leads to their physical and behavioral development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate industry vs inferiority stage.

Consider now the relatedness need; an infant/child is typically attuned to others and comes ready to be imprinted upon and have attachment with one or more caregivers. The infant/ child comes vulnerable and needy (the infant needs milk while the child needs say love) and greedy and the parent/ caregiver may regulate the care and attention and time they can devote to the child. Early on, when the needs are not met consistently or are contingent, the infant/ child learns to be (passive) aggressive and angry towards the attachment figure and learns to avoid contact. On the other hand the infant/child is driven by an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of love that makes them approach familiar people (parents/ teachers) and contexts(home/school) and worth building attachments with. If their need for relatedness is reasonably honored, they quickly become PEOPLE focused, considering people as ends rather than instrumental means to any outcomes.They realize and start regulating their relationships and a relatedness supportive environment leads to their social and moral development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate trust vs mistrust stage.

Lastly, consider the need for meaningfulness; an infant /child is typically a scientist-in-the-crib and comes ready to make sense of and interpret events and happenings and exercise agency and learn. The infant comes eager and curious and active and the parent may restrict some actions (like touching the genitals) that may lead to feelings of guilt and disgust in the infant/ child. On the other hand, the infant/ child is driven by an intrinsic motivation that is driven by the emotion of wonder and he/ she systemically and scientifically experiments with the surroundings and tries to find causal relations and have an impact and learn. If the need for meaning is reasonably honored, they quickly become WORLD focused, being ecological aware and seeing how they fit in. They realize and start regulating their cognition and a meaning supportive environment leads to their intellectual development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate initiative vs guilt stage.

In an nutshell, what I am proposing is that there are four systems revolving around exploration (autonomy), play (competence), attachment (relatedness) and learning (meaning) in the infants/ child that also give rise to the emotion pairs of fear/interest, sadness/enjoyment, anger/love and guilt/wonder that may sustain in adulthood also in a slightly transformed way. Also these may conceivable be related to the four major goals of Emotional well-being/positivity, Success/productivity, Morality/intimacy and Meaning/generativity.

I will rest my case here. In the next post I will actually go into what makes for an autonomy supportive, competence supportive, relatedness supportive and meaning supportive sociocultural context

Dancing with your baby

We all understand intuitively the necessity of better bonding with the new-born baby and research has shed light on the importance of early child-caregiver interactions for the formation of what is called ‘secure attachment‘  in the baby. We also know the importance of the first few critical years of development and why all the sensory and motor modalities of the infant needs to be  adequately stimulated for proper and timely achievement of developmental milestones.

What we don’t typically appreciate is that dancing with your newborn baby may be just such an exercise which involves all the senses of the baby while also providing adequate motor workout for both the baby and the caregiver.

Come Sue Doherty on the scene, and with her thoroughly researched and elaborately written book ‘Dancing with your Baby: For bonding and better health for both of you’ she makes a persuasive case for kinergetcis or taking time out to dance holding your baby using different postures and carriages.

She recommends this dance or workout at least three times a week in either 30 minutes chunk or 2-3 bursts of 10 minutes each. The books is aptly illustrated and comes packed with detailed instructions and do and don’t of each pose or workout.  Along with the basic dance or workout there are Tai-chi and yoga based warm-up and stretching illustrations too.

The book is peppered with quotes and cutting edge research findings by psychologists and neuroscientists and vouch for Sue’s erudition and thorough ground work.

It would make for a  good gift for those expecting or who are already parents of new-born babies. The basic idea is to safely use the baby as a weight for the workout of the caregiver, but at all times focusing primarily on the need and enjoyment of the baby. There are dedicated chapters on the importance of sound, touch , movement, special needs children etc and while some chapters are heavy on the scientific aspect of why its important to dance with your baby , the latter part of the book is more focused on how to dance with your baby and makes for a comparatively easier read.

One downside I noted was that sometimes excessive quotations from experts gets in the way of flow of the book and this could have easily been rectified with some smart editing. But overall I enjoyed reading this book by my twitter friend Sue Doherty (@storiesmatter)

If you are expecting a baby or a parent of a newborn, go buy this book and start dancing with a light step and a song in your heart! No better experience than to be a parent of a new-born!! and no better way to celebrate it than by dancing with him/ her!!!

Love and Work

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Love and work are two cornerstones of adult human life. The capacity to love and work adequately was considered by Freud as important for our well-being.

Adult romantic or love relationships are grounded in childhood attachment patterns. As per the famous and well researched and validated attachment theory, childhood attachment figures and the quality of our attachment with the primary caregiver, serve as templates for future adult relationships.

Attachment theory posits that there are at-least three different kinds of attachment patterns- secure attachment (when parental care-giving is consistent and available) , insecure anxious attachment and insecure avoidant attachment. While there is bound to be some effects due to child’s temperament, the attachment pattern is mostly supposed to be governed by parental care-giving style.

Although the primary ‘attachment figure’ or care-giver can be any parent, its typically the mother. The father is typically the disciplinarian or primary ‘authority figure’.

That brings me to work. While love is connection and intimacy, work is a constraint and usually a necessity.

One of the important skills to succeed in adult work life is to be comfortable with legitimate authority and also having the skills and confidence to wield authority when in a position to do so.

It is my thesis, that adult workplace adjustment, as operationalized by acceptance and flourishing in one’s place in the hierarchical work system, draws upon childhood patterns of relating to the primary ‘authority figure’ or role-model.

It has been generally found that there are three typical parenting styles: authoritative parenting (where discipline is based on logic and mutually agreed/ humane rules etc), authoritarian parenting (where discipline is done based on the power of the parent and no logical reason per se) and permissive parenting (where disciplining is lacking).

When can hypothesize that this can lead to different forms of model of what an authority figure or role model is: for the child whose primary authority figure is authoritative , authority is acceptable and ennobling; for the child with primary authority figure authoritarian, authority is to be defied or used to subjugate others; for the child with primary authority figure as permissive, any form of authority, even one drawing from ones self esteem is problematic and to be avoided.

It is instructive to take a pause here and see the parallels with caring. While caring consistently for the child, leads to secure attachment and better love relationships later on, not caring or caring inconsistently leads to poorer outcomes in love relationships.

Similarly, pushing a child gently and consistently, leads to the child developing a healthy self-confidence/ self-esteem , while pushing a child too much based on pure ego and power (sort of like bullying by a parent) or not pushing at all may lead to poorer and compromised self -esteem and later on lead to relationship problems in the workplace , where one may suffer from superiority/ inferiority complexes and ‘power and competence’ related issues.

A look at the mediating mechanisms is also instructive.

Good caring or secure attachment leads to a presence of an attachment figure or safe haven where one can do curious exploration and find that people are in general trustworthy and loveable.

Good pushing or comfort-with-authority leads to a presence of a role model or guide with whom one can exploit a niche and find one’s own niche and be comfortable with one’ sown and others legitimate authorities and competences.

Of course while the literature on attachment is burgeoning and its relationship to adult romantic relationship is well established, there needs to be more research on parenting styles and its effect on self-confidence etc and how that impacts later real world work relationships especially those hierarchical in nature like with boss and subordinates.

As an aside, I came to this broad analogy between childhood caring and childhood pushing and there different adult outcomes via the well known social psychology effcet whereby we judge a person/ his or her face etc on two dimensions intuitively: trust/warmth (aligned to capacity for deep love-like bonds) and dominance/competence (aligned to capacity to deliver and execute) . One can see the sam analogy in whether the help we can get form the person is emotional in nature (love like ) or instrumental in nature (work like). Thus for every con-specific we meet, what we are most interested in,  while relating to him / her is- what are his/ her capacities to Love and to Work!!


Intrinsic Connectivity Networks: developmental time course
In my last post I introduced the mouse trap readers to ICNs , ICA and the rs-fcMRI (resting state Functional connectivity fMRI) procedure that is used to detect such networks. This post extends that exciting line of work by commenting on 3 papers that list the ICNs found in the developing brain (infant, child , adolescent, adult).

What is important to recognize, and might not be so evident, at the outset, is that these ICNs change over developmental time course both in number and their topology (i.e. their constituent parts) . For eg. in last post I hinted that these ICNs range from 5 in infants to up-to 16 in adults. That figure of 5, was based on this paper by Franssson et al that found that there were 5 ICNs in infants. The accompanying figure shows these networks (I presume ordered by the amount of variance that each component explains) and the textual description (from the abstract) is as follows:

We found five unique resting-states networks in the infant brain that encompassed the primary visual cortex, bilateral sensorimotor areas, bilateral auditory cortex, a network including the precuneus area, lateral parietal cortex, and the cerebellum as well as an anterior network that incorporated the medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


A group level analysis of resting state activity is shown in Fig. 3. Accordingly, Fig. 3 A shows a resting-state network that encompasses primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, extending into the parietal lobe, whereas the network displayed in Fig. 3 B is predominantly located along the somatosensory and motor cortices bilaterally. The resting-state network shown in Fig. 3 C is primarily located in the superior and posterior parts of the temporal cortex and the inferior parietal cortex, including the auditory area in the superior temporal gyrus. Fig. 3 D shows a resting-state network that encloses the bilateral superior parietal cortex, precuneus as well as the lateral aspects of the cerebellum. Finally, a resting-state network was observed that consisted of the medial as well as the dorsolateral section of the prefrontal cortex (Fig. 3 E).

To me the networks seem to be made-to-order to fit the five/eight stage evo-devo model that I have been championing. The functional networks/stages thus can be labelled as :
1.  Sensory (Visual cortex/occipital lobe)

2.  Motor (somatosensory/ motor cortex)

3. Memory (temporal cortex/ auditory)

4.  Language/Spatial (depending on lateralization and hemisphere)  (sup. parietal , cerebellum)

5. Cognition (frontal)


It is apt to pause here and reiterate that these 5 are what are found in infants and come pre-wired; as one grows one makes changes to these functional networks and adds new networks. also these networks do not look the same as that found in adults- the major difference being that in children/infants anatomically near areas also are part of a functional network; while as we grow, presumably based on the fact that other areas are also recruited over developmental time frame, the network gets more distributed and anatomically distant regions also become apart of the intitial local network.


That brings us to our next elegant and beautifully written open-access study that shows how a ‘local’ organization in childhood changes to a distributed organization in adulthood, for the functional networks,  while still retaining small-world properties.

For analysis and comparison purposes , the authors chose to focus on 3 well-known and another lesser well-known ICN that is found in adult brain- the 3 well-known being Default Mode Network ( DMN) , 2 task related networks –  a fronto-parietal network that to me seems like Executive control network (ECN)  and a cingulo-opercular network that to me seems like a Salience network (SAL) and the other lesser well0known ICN centered around Cerebellum (CER) activity.

It is not important which ICNs they chose to study , what is important is the results that they found. They basically  found that in children the regions of interest belonging to the ICNs  are more closely clustered around anatomical locations like the lobes; but in later adulthood they cluster as per functional network i.e. ICN  . This becomes evident if we look at the accompanying figure. The blue shaded region shows all nodes belonging to frontal lobe – they are clustered together in children, but segregate as we move to adulthood (top part of figure A); in contrats the lower part of figure (B) shows the pink shaded cluster that is grouping the DMN regions of interest. We can visually see that in children the DMN areas are not clustered together functionally , but over time they get clustered in a tight network.


Finally, a third study that used grey matter based structural covariance of functional networks came to the same conclusion that some networks grow and develop and change their topology over time.

Network nodes identified from eight widely replicated functional intrinsic connectivity networks served as seed regions to map whole-brain structural covariance patterns in each age group. In general, structural covariance in the youngest age group was limited to seed and contralateral homologous regions. Networks derived using primary sensory and motor cortex seeds were already well-developed in early childhood but expanded in early adolescence before pruning to a more restricted topology resembling adult intrinsic connectivity network patterns. In contrast, language, social–emotional, and other cognitive networks were relatively undeveloped in younger age groups and showed increasingly distributed topology in older children. The so-called default-mode network provided a notable exception, following a developmental trajectory more similar to the primary sensorimotor systems. Relationships between functional maturation and structural covariance networks topology warrant future exploration.

To me the above looks promising.The new technique of rs-fcMRI heralds new insight into the brain structure and function. In the next post we will look more closely on the main ICNs found in adult human brain.  Stay tuned.

Fransson, P., Skiold, B., Horsch, S., Nordell, A., Blennow, M., Lagercrantz, H., & Aden, U. (2007). Resting-state networks in the infant brain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (39), 15531-15536 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0704380104
Fair, D., Cohen, A., Power, J., Dosenbach, N., Church, J., Miezin, F., Schlaggar, B., & Petersen, S. (2009). Functional Brain Networks Develop from a “Local to Distributed” Organization PLoS Computational Biology, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000381
Zielinski, B., Gennatas, E., Zhou, J., & Seeley, W. (2010). Network-level structural covariance in the developing brain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (42), 18191-18196 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003109107

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Orchids wither with stress, but bloom with care

Figure 1. Graphical display of the diathesis-s...
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Traditionally, it has been evident that some children who show high stress reactivity or inbuilt vulnerability to stress (the diathesis of stress-diathesis model) fare badly when exposed to adverse early life circumstances/events. These adverse environmental influences can range from marital discord in family to stress of being born in a low socio economic status (SES) family or the stress of joining a new peer group.

A new theory however has been gaining ground that these children are orchid children who show high biological and behavioral sensitivity to context and thus can wither in stressful situations while at the same time have the capability to bloom far greater than a normal child given supportive and nurturing environments. One way to conceptualize this is to think of these child as showing greater phenotype variability and adaptability and being more plastic- so the underlying genotype manifest itself differently depending on environmental input. Being more plastic the orchid kids are able to use the environment to their best; or get abused by the environment for the worst.

A new study by Boyce et al looks at the interaction between stressful conditions and stress reactivity in 383 pre-primary children (aged 5-6 years) and reached a similar conclusion that there is indeed an interaction between life stress and stress reactivity such that those who are highly reactive are also more prone to developmental extremes mediated by environmental quality. they thus found that the orchid kids with high stress reactivity showed better adaptation in low life stress conditions, but worse adaptation in high life stress conditions, compared to the dandelions kids who had normal stress reactivity and were more or less immune to life stress. The adaptation measures they measured included clinical and pathological indexes like externalizing symptoms, as well as positive indexes like pro-social behavior, school engagement and academic competence.

The authors looked at two measures of human stress reactivity – Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA)(related to heart rate variability and parasympathetic stress response) and salivary cortisol level changes. High resting RSA/ high RSA reactivity is good and indicates buffering against environmental stress; while low resting RSA / low RSA reactivity is bad and indicates high stress response to stressors . the picture with cortisol reactivity is much unclear and it was not clear (before this study) how cortisol reactivity would interact with life stress to affect adaptation of pre-primary children. the main goal of the study was to find how children stress reactivity and overall family adversity interact to affect adaptation of the child.

Here is the hypothesis in authors own words:

Based on the broad literature on risk and adversity, we hypothesized a robust negative main effect of family adversity across all indices of adaptation. We also expected to find main effects of stress reactivity on adaptation, but given the simultaneous test of interactive effects, as well as the paucity of studies examining the effects of RSA and cortisol reactivity, especially for positive developmental outcomes, and some inconsistencies within such studies, we did not hypothesize the directions of these main effects. More importantly, in accordance with the theory of biological sensitivity to context (Boyce & Ellis, 2005; Ellis et al., 2005), we expected to find evidence that ANS and HPA reactivity moderate the effects of early family adversity on various domains of functioning. We hypothesized that in high-adversity family environments, elevated levels of stress reactivity would be associated with maladaptive outcomes, whereas low stress reactivity would act as a protective factor. In the context of low family adversity, on the other hand, we expected high levels of reactivity to be associated with better adaptation. It is important to note that although biological sensitivity to context should be examined in both positive and negative settings, our assessment focuses on six types of family adversities, and a lack of overall family adversity does not necessarily imply a supportive and nurturing environment. In addition to the hypothesized Adversity × Stress Reactivity interactions, we controlled for children’s sex and tested whether main and interactive effects of adversity and reactivity vary across sex.

And this is what they found too! Here are the results:

The study’s most novel and salient findings emerged when adversity and stress reactivity were considered together, as components of interactions between environmental exposures and measures of biological sensitivity. Stress reactivity moderated the negative effect of family adversity across various domains of adaptation. Overall, the findings are consistent with the stress diathesis hypothesis that high-reactive children show worse adaptive functioning in the context of high adversity. Indeed, such children generally evinced the lowest levels of adaptive functioning of the entire study sample.

However, equally reactive children in settings of low adversity showed the highest levels of adaptation, levels even higher than those of their less reactive counterparts. Specifically, in the context of low family adversity, children who showed high RSA reactivity in response to challenges had the lowest levels of externalizing symptoms and the highest levels of prosocial behaviors and school engagement. Although adaptation showed significant stability from fall to spring, high-reactive children showed improvement in academic competence in the context of low adversity and a decline in competence in the context of high adversity, whereas the inverse was true for low reactive children. Similarly, children who showed high cortisol reactivity to the challenge protocol had the highest levels of prosocial behaviors in the context of low adversity. Further, children exhibiting low RSA reactivity in response to challenges were fully or partially buffered against the harmful effects of adversity on externalizing symptoms, prosocial behavior, and school engagement. Likewise, among children who showed low cortisol reactivity, levels of prosocial behaviors did not significantly change across different levels of adversity.

These findings support the biological sensitivity to context (BSC) theory advanced by Boyce and colleagues (Boyce 2007; Boyce & Ellis, 2005) and the concept of differential susceptibility to environmental influences proposed by Belsky and colleagues (Belsky, 2005; Belsky et al., 2007). This study illustrates that high reactivity is not merely a pathogenic, risk-amplifying response to adversity but can also promote adaptive functioning. Corroborating Boyce and colleagues’ theoretical perspective, children exhibiting high levels of biological sensitivity to context, as indexed by high autonomic and adrenocortical reactivity, were more susceptible to environmental influences in the context of both low and high family adversity. Thus, biologically sensitive children showed the highest levels of symptoms in the context of high family adversity but the highest levels of competence in the context of low family adversity. However, a lack of family adversity does not necessarily imply the presence of a nurturing family environment. Thus, future studies will need to further examine the role of heightened biological sensitivity to context across both stressful, health-undermining and supportive, health-enhancing contexts.

The conceptual figure clearly shows that for low Biological Sensitivity to Context (low BSC) children, adversity has relatively no effect on adaptation/maladaptation. However, for high BSC children, there is an inverse relation between adversity and adaptivity. To me this is further proof of the now robust orchid and dandelion theory of child development.

Obradovi?, J., Bush, N., Stamperdahl, J., Adler, N., & Boyce, W. (2010). Biological Sensitivity to Context: The Interactive Effects of Stress Reactivity and Family Adversity on Socioemotional Behavior and School Readiness Child Development, 81 (1), 270-289 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01394.x

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Five kinds of self/self-knowledge

Ulric Neisser
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What can one say about an article that explores self in terms of stage theories (5 stages that match my own stage theoretic framework), has references to infantile autism and paranoia , and even references Carol Dweck‘s entity vs incremental intelligence theories and George Lakoff‘s ‘idealized cognitive model‘- all focuses of this blog…Well I just love this article by Ulric Neisser titled ‘Five kinds of self-knowledge’. That artcile gives me an opportunity to integrate and synthesize many of the prominent threads of this blog in a coherent narrative.

Let me start with core thesis of Ulrich that there are at least five different types of selves that we gradually become aware of in developmental time frame. Because Ulrich does such a nice job of presenting his findings , I’ll quote at length from him.

The analysis to be presented here distinguishes among several kinds of self-specifying information, each establishing a different aspect of the self. These aspects are so distinct that they are essentially different selves: they differ in their origins and developmental histories, in what we know about them, in the pathologies to which they are subject, and in the manner in which they contribute to human social experience. Here, in capsule form, is the list:

The ecological self is the self as perceived with respect to the physical environment: I am the person here in this place, engaged in this particular activity.
The interpersonal self, which appears from earliest infancy just as the ecological self does, is specified by species-specific signals of emotional rapport and communication: I am the person who is engaged, here, in this particular human interchange.
The extended self is based primarily on our personal memories and anticipations: I am the person who had certain specific experiences, who regularly engages in certain specific and familiar routines.
The private self appears when children first notice that some of their experiences are not directly shared with other people: I am, in principle, the only person who can feel this unique and particular pain.
The conceptual self or ‘self-concept’ draws its meaning from the network of assumptions and theories in which it is embedded, just as all other concepts do. Some of those theories concern social roles (husband, professor, American), some postulate more or less hypothetical internal entities (the soul, the unconscious mind, mental energy, the brain, the liver), and some establish socially significant dimensions of difference (intelligence, attractiveness, wealth). There is a remarkable variety in what people believe about themselves, and not all of it is true.

Note the five stage model fitting perfectly to the T. The first stage marked by a sensory stage that is more defined in relation to the environment around. The second stage more subjective in nature and based on agentic conceptions of intersubjectivity- related to significant humans around and also valence and affect based. The third stage being ‘experiential ‘ in nature and marked by remembered/internalized activities with family playing a major role in its development. The fourth stage marked by hidden or private stage in which peers or social sphere plays a significant role- also the most traditional defintion and conceptualizations associated with a trait. The fifth, and for now the final, stage associated with abstracting and conceptualization and model-driven depending on culture and subject to cultural variations and also cognition based. Many of the stage features may not be readily apparent and map to the five forms of selves described above, but bear with me- they will become clearer as I elaborate on the selves and quote more from the article.

First let us take the ecological self: Neisser describes them in slightly technical and inaccessible terms of ‘optic flow’ and ‘looming’ -some difficult concepts to grasp but which basically focus on the fact that relative motion between eye(observation point) and the environment (say a wall) lead to this sense of an ecological self that is perceiving the immediate environment and also acting on it. Neisser discusses experiments with children in this context like the child when he closes his eyes claims that you cannot see him. See more below:

One surprising bit of evidence for the importance of optical flow for the ecological self comes from a phenomenon investigated by Flavell, Shipstead & Croft (1980). The phenomenon is amusing in its own right and has often been described: young children cover their eyes with their hands and say “You can’t see me!” Prior to the work of Flavell et al. (1980), this behavior was typically interpreted in Piagetian terms: since the child cannot see anything, s/he assumes that you can’t see anything either. Indeed, when these experimenters asked their eyes-covered subjects “Can I see you?”, most 2- and 3-year-olds answered No. Surprisingly, however, the same subjects answered Yes to many other questions about what the experimenter could see. “Can I see Snoopy (a doll located nearby)?” Yes. “Can I see your leg?” Yes. “Can I see your head?” Yes. These results show that “You can’t see me” does not reflect any egocentric misapprehension about other people’s seeing; rather, it is a clue to the speaker’s own conception of self. The child’s ‘me’—the entity to which the adult’s question “Can I see you?” refers—is evidently somewhere near the eyes. To be sure, that localisation is not precise: Flavell et al. got mixed results when they had their subjects cover only one eye, or stand behind a barrier with a hole in it so that nothing but an eye was visible. Nevertheless the implication seems clear: children locate the self at the point of observation, as specified by the optical flow field.

Important as it is, optical flow is by no means the only determinant of the ecological self. The self is an embodied actor as well as an observer; it initiates movements, perceives their consequences, and takes pleasure in its own effectivity. Infants love to look at their own hands in action, and they can distinguish their own moving legs, seen in real time on a TV screen, from the moving legs of another baby (Bahrick & Watson, 1985). Many theorists have noted the importance of agency in establishing a sense of self. I can cause changes in the immediately perceptible environment, and those objects whose movements and changes I can inevitably and consistently control are parts of me. This kind of self-perception is precisely time dependent and richly intermodal. I can see and feel what I do: the optical and kinesthetically-given structures that specify the consequences of movement are exactly synchronous, and both coincide with the efferent activity by which the action itself is produced. In general, then, the two principal aspects of the ecological self are defined by two distinguishable kinds of information. The existence of a perceiving entity at a particular location in the environment is most clearly specified by the optical flow field (though touch and hearing also contribute); the existence of a bounded, articulated and controllable body is specified not only by what we can see of it but by what we feel and what we can do6.
The ecological self does not always coincide with the biological body. In particular, anything that moves with the body tends to be perceived as part of the self—especially if its movements are self-produced. This principle applies most obviously to the clothes we wear. It is / who kick the soccer ball, though in fact its only contact is with my shoe; when you touch my shoulder you are touching me, even when a shirt and a jacket interpose between your fingers and my skin. These experiences have nothing to do with my ownership of the clothes. The same jacket is not part of my ecological self when it hangs in my closet, or when I am carrying it home from the cleaners; to touch it in such cases is not to touch me at all. What matters is not possession or contact but agency and co-ordinate movement. The same principle explains why the practised wearer of an artificial limb so naturally perceives it as a part of the self. Such wearers have not mistakenly come to believe that the limbs are flesh-and-blood parts of their bodies. On the contrary, their perceptions are exactly correct: to the extent that the motion of a limb is responsive to one’s intentions and is co-ordinated with movements of the point of observation, it belongs to the ecological self.

He also gives example of the colloquial use of identification with your car while you are driving one. He also claims that this self is present from birth and only refines a bit with experience. He believes phantom limbs and neglect are pathologies associated with this kind of self.

In summary, here are some of the characteristics of the ecological self:
• The self, like the environment, exists objectively; many of its characteristics are specified by objectively-existing information. That information allows us to perceive not only the location of the ecological self but also the nature of its ongoing interaction with the environment.
•Much of the relevant information is kinetic, consisting of structure over time. Optical structure is particularly important, but self-specifying information is often available to several perceptual modalities at once.
•The ecological self is veridically perceived from earliest infancy; nevertheless self-perception develops and can become more adequate with increasing age and skill.

Next we come to the inter personal self:

The interpersonal self is the self as engaged in immediate unreflective social interaction with another person. Like the ecological self, it can be directly perceived on the basis of objectively existing information. Again like the ecological self, most of the relevant information it is essentially kinetic, i.e. consists of structures over time. In this case, however, the information—and the state of affairs that it specifies—come into existence only when two (or more) people are engaged in personal interaction. If the nature, direction, timing, and intensity of one person’s actions mesh appropriately with the nature/direction/timing/intensity of the other’s, they have jointly created an instance of what is often called intersubjectivity. The mutuality of their behaviour exists in fact and can be perceived by outside observers; more importantly, it is perceived by the participants themselves. Each of them can see (and hear, and perhaps feel) the appropriately interactive responses of the other. Those responses, in relation to one’s own perceived activity, specify the interpersonal self.

Then he illustrates some mother-child cooing examples and elaborates:

These interactions illustrate what Trevarthen has called ‘primary intersubjectivity’. The participants respond to each other immediately and coherently, in both action and feeling; their reciprocal activities are closely co-ordinated in time. The result is a shared structure of action—a structure that both of the participants enjoy, and that neither of them could have produced alone. Indeed, the contributions of the individual partners would be useless and foolish if they occurred by themselves. An elegant experiment by Lynne Murray (Murray & Trevarthen, 1985) demonstrates this point. Mothers and their 6 to 12 week-old babies, actually in separate rooms, interacted via double closed-circuit television. Each partner saw and heard a fullface, life-size video image of the other, with appropriate eye contact being made. As long as the video presentation was ‘live’, this system allowed interaction to proceed normally: the babies looked intently at their mothers with open and relaxed mouth, slightly raised eyebrows, and other signs of interest. The first minute of live interaction comprised the control condition. It was recorded on videotape; the tape of the mother was then rewound and immediately replayed on the infant’s screen. This second (replay) minute comprised the experimental condition. Although what the infants saw and heard was identically the same in both conditions—the same mother, the same gestures, the same displays of affection—their responses were dramatically different. In the experimental condition, the babies who had been happy a minute ago now exhibited signs of distress: they turned away from the mother’s image, frowned, grimaced, and fingered their clothing.10. (A final control presentation ensured that they had not simply become tired of the situation itself.) The subjects’ distress during the replay was evidently produced by some kind of mismatch between their mothers’ responses and their own.
Murray’s study shows that infants in normal face-to-face interactions are not just picking up information about their partners; they actually perceive the ongoing intersubjective relationship. J. J. Gibson’s (1979) principle that all perceiving involves co-perception of environment and self applies also to the social environment and to the interpersonal self, i.e. the self that is established in these interactions. Just as the ecological self is specified by the orientation and flow of optical texture, so the interpersonal self is specified by the orientation and flow of the other individual’s expressive gestures; just as the ecological self is articulated and confirmed by the effects of our own physical actions, so the interpersonal self is developed and confirmed by the effects of our own expressive gestures on our partner.

These examples (Stern gives many others) show again that intersubjectivity is anemotional business: the two partners are obviously sharing an affect. Nevertheless,the ordinary vocabulary of the emotions is not adequate to describe what is going on. It is not just that both are ‘happy’ or ‘excited’, but that the mother is precisely matching the pattern and temporal contour of the infant’s activity with her own. Such ‘vitality affects’ (Stern, 1985) are specified by information in several sensory modalities: in visible movement, in the emphasis and modulation of the voice, in bodily contact. Their specification is so rich that they are readily perceived and shared, not only between mothers and infants but between any two individuals in social contact. The resulting experience is an immediate awareness of both the other person and the (interpersonal) self, as well as of the specific present relationship between them.

Now comes the important part. The claim that developmental failures at this stage are associated with autism. I would in parallel surmise that too much reliance on this intersubjective self should however dispose towards psychosis too.

The close parallels between ecological and interpersonal self-perception should not be allowed to obscure certain important differences. The successful achievement of intersubjectivity depends not only on the operation of the perceptual and motor systems but on some additional, specifically human mechanism that permits us to relate to members of our own species. The mechanism can fail, and it has often been suggested that the dramatic condition called infantile autism, characterised from the outset by a total lack of interest in relationships with people, results from just such a failure. Leo Kanner made this point explicitly in the paper that established autism as a diagnostic category: “We must, then, assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual, biologically provided affective contact with people, just as other children come into the world with innate physical or intellectual handicaps” (1943, p. 250). Murray (1984) has recently presented a similar argument, and suggested that the effects observed in her double closedcircuit television paradigm may provide useful models for autism research.

Awareness of the interpersonal self is almost invariably accompanied by a simultaneous awareness of the ecological self. A wealth of information specifies their co-existence: I can see that the person to whom you are addressing yourself (the interpersonal me) is the very person who is located here, at this point of observation in this environment (the ecological me). For this reason, these two aspects of the self are rarely experienced as distinct. Such a separation can occur, however, if we attend exclusively to one class of information and ignore the other entirely. To attend only to ecological information structures, ignoring the interpersonal, is to treat another individual merely as a non-human object—perhaps to walk past him, or shove him aside, without engaging in any form of intersubjectivity. The opposite case can occur in very intimate personal contact, as between lovers or (as psychoanalysts have long suggested) between mothers and infants: one’s attention is so fully directed to the ongoing intersubjective experience that one does not pick up any ecological-self-specifying information at all. This does not mean that lovers and infants have no ecological selves, but only that there are moments at which those aspects of their selves may go unnoticed.

It is interesting to note that Neisser equates too much inetrsubjectivity with the obsession (or colloquial) madness involved in bond between lovers/ parents-child.

Next he analyzes the extended self:

The objectively-existing kinds of information considered so far—optical flow, effective movement, other people’s expressive gestures—specify only the present self. We can see what we are doing right now, and with whom, but how can we know what we did yesterday or last week? The answer, of course, is just that we remember, the information is in our own heads. The extended self is the self as it was in the past and as we expect it to be in the future, known primarily on the basis of memory.

He discusses amnesia as a pathology of thisslef and distinguishes between episodic memory and scripts involved at this stage.

Genuine remembering occurs when at least some information about the past is disentangled from the current situation. In many cases, that information is about my past, i.e. it is a record of some aspect of the extended self14. In remembering something that I did or experienced on some’other occasion—by remembering that I did it rather than merely how to do it—I necessarily became aware that my existence transcends the present moment. This can happen in two rather different ways. To the extent that what I recall is a unique and particular past event (say, presenting a colloquium talk at the University of Aberdeen in November 1987), I am having an episodic memory (Tulving, 1972). But to the extent that what I recall is a repeated and familiar routine (there is a script for colloquiua that includes arriving in town, talking to colleagues, being introduced, giving the talk, answering questions, etc.), I am using a general event representation (Nelson, 1986) or script (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Both kinds of memory contribute to the extended self. / am the person who gave that colloquium in Aberdeen: I am also a person who gives colloquium talks from time to time. While these two examples are certainly not among the most central components of my extended self (!), that self can be thought as a kind of cumulated total of such memories: the things I remember having done and the things I think of myself as doing regularly.

Recent studies show that episodic recall, like script knowledge, is in place by the age of three. A 2 \ -year-old child will often fail to remember the particular ‘target event’ that an interviewer first asks about, but s/he will usually have at least some fairly accurate memories that go back 3 or more months (Todd & Perlmutter, 1980; Fivush, Gray & Fromhoff, 1987). Despite these findings, I doubt that episodic memory contributes very much to the sense of self at this early age. Children under 3 years are not very interested in the past, even when they can recall it. They would much rather talk about something in the present—or play and not talk at all—then spend effort in remembering earlier experiences (Galotti & Neisser, 1982). That interest increases as the child come to realise the social significance of autobiographical recall, i.e. its potential for extending relationships beyond the present moment. The most important adaptive function of memory may be that it makes permanent interpersonal relations possible, and thus vastly strengthens the coherence of human groups (Neisser, 1988). Note that even rather sloppy memories can serve this purpose: my recall of a shared event must be close enough to yours to avoid bizarre discrepancies, but it need not be accurate in every detail. Unsurprisingly, this is just the level of mnemonic accuracy that people generally achieve.

I would like to pause here and reflect on the fact that in amnesia the intersubjective self is dysfunctional- that in my view should lead to problems at this level too. In particular because they do not appreciative the social subtleties that should guide the appropriate memory and scrips generation, they end up with too much detailed memory (savant abilities) and too rigrous scripts (repetitive and restrictive movements and interests). On the other hand too much intersubjectivity reliance in memory and scripts formation should lead to inaccurate and self-serving memories and scripts that are partly delusional and confabulatory.

The extended self becomes increasingly important as we grow older. Most adults develop a more or less standard life-narrative that effectively defines the self in terms of a particular series of remembered experiences. These accounts are continually being extended (and occasionally revised!), creating a narrative structure much like that of more formal autobiographies (Barclay, 1986). As in the case of social relationships, the memory that supports these narratives need not be highly accurate. It also need not deal in equal detail with every epoch of life. Recent studies suggest that elderly people have particularly rich and accessible memories for the period of adolescence and young adulthood.

Note also that how as we move up the developmental stages we move from agentic/experiential “I” to narrative ‘me’, the two types of selves I discussed recently in a different context.

Next he moves to the Private self:

Each of us has conscious experiences that are not available to anyone else. Some of these are the inner aspects of perception and action; others (dreams, for example) are quite independent of the individual’s actual present circumstances. These personal experiences are an important source of self-knowledge15. When are they first used for that purpose? While even the youngest children surely have a conscious mental life (including an awareness of the ecological and interpersonal selves!), I suspect that they do not yet take the immediacy of their experience as an important line of demarcation between themselves and the rest of the world. They do not need to: such a line already exists for them, established by ecologically available information. Although each of us certainly “dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place,” as William James put it (1890, p. 290), we first do so by exterospection rather than by introspection.

We not only have private experience but remember it, recalling dreams we had last night or thoughts we had last week and thus augmenting the extended self. The importance of this contribution varies substantially from one person to another, perhaps in part because memory for mental experiences is relatively poor. Pains are notoriously difficult to recall; we remember that we were in pain, but cannot easily recapture the quality of the experience. Most people forget most of their dreams almost immediately.

Philosophers in the Western tradition—indeed, in many traditions—have often treated the private self as the only self worth knowing. Descartes is primarily responsible for the further claim that it is the only self we can be sure about, all other experiences being subject to error and delusion. I have argued, in contrast, that the ecological and interpersonal selves are perceived effectively and surely from the beginning of life. (This argument does not dispute the value of the private self, only its epistemiological priority.) In any case it is worth noting that individuals differ widely in the value and importance they attach to inner experience. This was roughly Jung’s original distinction between extraverts and introverts. In the extravert, ” . . . thinking is oriented by the object and objective data” (Jung, 1921/1971, p. 342), while introverted thinking ” . . . is neither determined by objective data nor directed to them; it is a thinking that starts from the subject and is directed to subjective ideas or subjective facts” (p. 344). These are essentially differences in the allocation of attention. All such forms of information and experience are available to everyone, but within the normal range they are not all equally noticed, equally used, or equally valued. Outside the normal range are the pathologies of the private self, which include obsessive thinking, repression and denial of feelings, multiple personality, and related conditions.

The private self to me is the most mundane and boring aspect of self- the “I think therefore I am” dictum.

Next we move on to the most interesting conceptual self:

Each of us has a concept of him/herself as a particular person in a familiar world. These self-concepts originate in social life, and so they vary widely across different societies and cultures. A few concepts of my own can serve as convenient examples: I am an American, a husband, and a professor. I assume that I have certain social obligations and political rights; that I have a liver and a spleen and a distinctive pattern of nuclear DNA; that I am a fast reader, poor at remembering names, and neither handsome nor ugly; that in general I do not think enough about the future consequences of my actions. Everyone could make such a list, and no two lists would be the same. Even the relevant dimensions need not be the same: a member of the Lohorung Rai in East Nepal would include the state of his Niwa (Hardman, 1981), and a medieval Englishman the state of his soul.

In the face of this complexity, it is useful to begin by considering concepts and categories of other kinds. What do we mean, for example, when we say that something is a ‘dog’? The so-called classical theory of concepts, which would claim that the class dog is defined by certain necessary and sufficient features, no longer seem adequate: it is too difficult to think of really definitive features, and those that do come to mind (e.g. ‘has four legs’) are just as hard to define as dog itself (Murphy & Medin, 1985). The classical theory also fails to explain the typicality effects discovered by Eleanor Rosch (1978); in most categories, some members function as ‘prototypes’ while others are more marginal. But category membership cannot just be a matter of similarity to the prototype either: besides the difficulty of defining ‘similarity’, such a definition would miss the point that many categories, including dog, are conceptually all-or-none. (Any given animal either is or isn’t a dog.) These difficulties are resolved by realising that concepts do not stand alone: each is defined with reference to a network of others, i.e. to a theory.

Many linguists, philosophers, and psychologists have made this point (e.g. Lakoff, 1987; McCauley, 1987; Medin & Wattenmaker, 1987). To call something a dog is to assign it to a place in our theory of animals in general and dogs in particular, i.e. to assert that it occupies space, has internal organs, must eat or starve to death, is likely to behave in certain ways, is bigger than a mouse and smaller than an elephant, should be treated in a particular manner appropriate to dogs, had two parents who were dogs and will (if it becomes a parent) have puppies, etc. These beliefs are components (not all equally central) of our implicit theory of doghood—of what George Lakoff (1987) would call an ‘idealised cognitive model’. Children have such models quite early, at least where animals are concerned (Carey, 1985).

I love the references to Lakoff and am a firm believer in his other theory of conceptual metaphors. Next he talks about paranoia and how that may be a result of too much theorizing. This is fortunate reference I have found because just the other day CMB, a reader of this blog pointed that paranoia is hard to explain if we treat autism and schizophrenia as opposites and grant a role for opposing effects of Oxytocin. My reply was that oxytocin may be more a social hormone than a trust hormone and paranoia is more a excessive theorizing about others defect than a suspicion deficit.

These principles apply equally to the concept of self. My notion of what I am, like your notion of what you are, reflects a cognitive model embeded in a theoretical network. It too is based primarily on what I have been told, not only in the form of general cultural assumptions but also of communications addressed to me in particular. Like other concepts it tends to govern what I notice; in this case, what I notice about myself. Like other theories, it is not necessarily correct; all of us know people whose self-theories seem off the mark in certain respects. Nevertheless most self-theories do work fairly well, at least in areas where they make predictions about real experience. (Where this is not the case—e.g. in paranoia—we tend to classify them as pathological.) When Epstein (1973) proposed that psychologists should think of the self as a theory rather than as an independently-existing entity, he was talking about the conceptual self.

Next closely followed are references to Carol Dweck- another psychologist I just adore.

Although the self-concept can usefully be regarded as a single cognitive model, it usually comprises several more or less distinct sub-theories. Three of these deserve specific mention, although they cannot be considered in detail here. Role theories, which have been much studied by sociologists, are our own notions of how we fit into society: of what we should do and how we should be treated. They originate, I think, in children’s understanding of the scripts in which they participate; hence they are in place very early. Internal models, in contrast, concern or bodies and our minds. In modern Western culture, self-theories of the body (like my firm belief that I have an internal organ called the liver18) are mostly based on biology and medicine. Theories of the mind, in contrast, are the province of psychology, philosophy, and religion. Children are presented with these theories by the people around them, and do their best to interpret their own lives in terms of what they have been told. When and what they are told depends, of course, on the particular culture in which they are growing up.

Trait attributions are an important class of self-theories that straddle the boundary between social roles and internal models. We may believe, for example, that we are clever or stupid, handsome or ugly, fortunate or unlucky. Although these dimensions are essentially conventional—not all cultures classify along the same dimensions, or value them to the same extent—they can be of considerable importance. In this vein, Carol Dweck (1986) has shown that children’s beliefs about intelligence affect their actual performance in school. Those who believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity (and that they themselves are stupid) learn much less from school experience than those who have a self-concept that allows for intellectual growth and development. Although such attributions are acquired early, they are not impervious to change.

And thus he concludes talking about some tantalizing tangential thoughts on the perceived and felt unity of self, how we know our neighbors as ourselves , the ‘doer’ as opposed to ‘knower’ and admiring or despising oneself- all perhaps food for the next three stages (relational, reflexive/recursive/generative and integrative ) of self.

I enjoyed reading the article and would like to thank whole heartedly the ‘References wanted’ room on FrinedFeed and Kubke in particular, without whom I would have not had access to this lovely article.

Neisser, U. (1988). Five kinds of self-knowledge Philosophical Psychology, 1 (1), 35-59 DOI: 10.1080/09515088808572924

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Major conscious and unconcoscious processes in the brain

Today I plan to touch upon the topic of consciousness (from which many bloggers shy) and more broadly try to delineate what I believe are the important different conscious and unconscious processes in the brain. I will be heavily using my evolutionary stages model for this.

To clarify myself at the very start , I do not believe in a purely reactive nature of organisms; I believe that apart from reacting to stimuli/world; they also act , on their own, and are thus agents. To elaborate, I believe that neuronal groups and circuits may fire on their own and thus lead to behavior/ action. I do not claim that this firing is under voluntary/ volitional control- it may be random- the important point to note is that there is spontaneous motion.

  1. Sensory system: So to start with I propose that the first function/process the brain needs to develop is to sense its surroundings. This is to avoid predators/ harm in general. this sensory function of brain/sense organs may be unconscious and need not become conscious- as long as an animal can sense danger, even though it may not be aware of the danger, it can take appropriate action – a simple ‘action’ being changing its color to merge with background. 
  2. Motor system:The second function/ process that the brain needs to develop is to have a system that enables motion/movement. This is primarily to explore its environment for food /nutrients. Preys are not going to walk in to your mouth; you have to move around and locate them. Again , this movement need not be volitional/conscious – as long as the animal moves randomly and sporadically to explore new environments, it can ‘see’ new things and eat a few. Again this ‘seeing’ may be as simple as sensing the chemical gradient in a new environmental.
  3. Learning system: The third function/process that the brain needs to develop is to have a system that enables learning. It is not enough to sense the environmental here-and-now. One needs to learn the contingencies in the world and remember that both in space and time. I am inclined to believe that this is primarily pavlovaion conditioning and associative learning, though I don’t rule out operant learning. Again this learning need not be conscious- one need not explicitly refer to a memory to utilize it- unconscious learning and memory of events can suffice and can drive interactions. I also believe that need for this function is primarily driven by the fact that one interacts with similar environments/con specifics/ predators/ preys and it helps to remember which environmental conditions/operant actions lead to what outcomes. This learning could be as simple as stimuli A predict stimuli B and/or that action C predicts reward D .
  4. Affective/ Action tendencies system .The fourth function I propose that the brain needs to develop is a system to control its motor system/ behavior by making it more in sync with its internal state. This I propose is done by a group of neurons monitoring the activity of other neurons/visceral organs and thus becoming aware (in a non-conscious sense)of the global state of the organism and of the probability that a particular neuronal group will fire in future and by thus becoming aware of the global state of the organism , by their outputs they may be able to enable one group to fire while inhibiting other groups from firing. To clarify by way of example, some neuronal groups may be responsible for movement. Another neuronal group may be receiving inputs from these as well as say input from gut that says that no movement has happened for a time and that the organism has also not eaten for a time and thus is in a ‘hungry’ state. This may prompt these neurons to fire in such a way that they send excitatory outputs to the movement related neurons and thus biasing them towards firing and thus increasing the probability that a motion will take place and perhaps the organism by indulging in exploratory behavior may be able to satisfy hunger. Of course they will inhibit other neuronal groups from firing and will themselves stop firing when appropriate motion takes place/ a prey is eaten. Again nothing of this has to be conscious- the state of the organism (like hunger) can be discerned unconsciously and the action-tendencies biasing foraging behavior also activated unconsciously- as long as the organism prefers certain behaviors over others depending on its internal state , everything works perfectly. I propose that (unconscious) affective (emotional) state and systems have emerged to fulfill exactly this need of being able to differentially activate different action-tendencies suited to the needs of the organism. I also stick my neck out and claim that the activation of a particular emotion/affective system biases our sensing also. If the organism is hungry, the food tastes (is unconsciously more vivid) better and vice versa. thus affects not only are action-tendencies , but are also, to an extent, sensing-tendencies.
  5. Decisional/evaluative system: the last function (for now- remember I adhere to eight stage theories- and we have just seen five brain processes in increasing hierarchy) that the brain needs to have is a system to decide / evaluate. Learning lets us predict our world as well as the consequences of our actions. Affective systems provide us some control over our behavior and over our environment- but are automatically activated by the state we are in. Something needs to make these come together such that the competition between actions triggered due to the state we are in (affective action-tendencies) and the actions that may be beneficial given the learning associated with the current stimuli/ state of the world are resolved satisfactorily. One has to balance the action and reaction ratio and the subjective versus objective interpretation/ sensation of environment. The decisional/evaluative system , I propose, does this by associating values with different external event outcomes and different internal state outcomes and by resolving the trade off between the two. This again need not be conscious- given a stimuli predicting a predator in vicinity, and the internal state of the organism as hungry, the organism may have attached more value to ‘avoid being eaten’ than to ‘finding prey’ and thus may not move, but camouflage. On the other hand , if the organisms value system is such that it prefers a hero’s death on battlefield , rather than starvation, it may move (in search of food) – again this could exist in the simplest of unicellular organisms.

Of course all of these brain processes could (and in humans indeed do) have their conscious counterparts like Perception, Volition,episodic Memory, Feelings and Deliberation/thought. That is a different story for a new blog post!

And of course one can also conceive the above in pure reductionist form as a chain below:

sense–>recognize & learn–>evaluate options and decide–>emote and activate action tendencies->execute and move.

and then one can also say that movement leads to new sensation and the above is not a chain , but a part of cycle; all that is valid, but I would sincerely request my readers to consider the possibility of spontaneous and self-driven behavior as separate from reactive motor behavior. 

Child Psychology: The Mouse Trap turns 3

The Mouse Trap turns 3 today. It was exactly three years and 334 posts earlier that the Mouse Trap was born. The Mouse Trap has indeed learnt to walk on its own and has also developed adequate linguistic skills in the meantime. The toddler years are all but over, as it now becomes more playful and enters play age of early childhood. Already people are demanding that it not be developmentally delayed, but start indulging in rich imaginative pretend play with topics being requested like symbolic interactionsim and social epistemology.

Some stock taking and reality check is in store. The wiki page on toddler lists the following last milestones for 25-36 months and I hope the Mouse trap is doing fine. To recap:

  1. Speaking in sentences: Hopefully the strands of mouse trap blog posts now form more cohesive sentences (like the theme of autism-psychosis, stage theories etc) and are not disjointed phrases and one-off utterances.
  2. Ability to be independent to primary care giver: I hope that the reader partcipation has increased and with more reader participatory initiatives like Skribit suggestions, Google FriendConnect etc., the Mouse Trap is able to become more and more independent of its primary caregiver, that is me, and instead make deep attachments with other secondary caregivers like its prized readers and subscriber base.
  3. Easily learns new words, places and people’s names: Hopefully as the Mouse trap matures, it is learning to expand its horizons and foraying into topics left hitherto untouched; with better reader connect features , like twitter/Frinedfeed etc it is surely remembering peoples names and where they come form!
  4. Anticipates routines: The mouse trap hopefully has learnt to anticipate the routine articles and topics that its readership likes to read and is doing a decent job on that score. do suggest your topics if the mouse trap doesn’t anticipate them!
  5. Toilet learning continues : Once th emouse trap might have been suffering from blogorrehea, but now it knows that passing motion (posting articles) once a week is adequate enough an dthat one should write a article only when one is full of it! There does exist scope for more routinized daily motion passing though!!
  6. Plays with toys in imaginative ways: I am experimenting a lot with social media (my favorite web 2.0 toy) so as to engage more readers in a conversation. If you have any imaginative ideas of how to play with this toy, do let me know!!
  7. Attempts to sing in-time with songs: Hopefully, the mouse trap has learnt to sing in tune with the zeitgeist of the day; though here I believe Mouse trap more has an original, unsynchronised with others voice and singing profile. Hope to change that and be more in sync with what others in the science blogosphere are singing (but definitely not the atheism/evolution debate which just bores me)

So, the Mouse trap is just about doing fine. It has been consistently featured in wikio top 100 science blogs, is amongst the top 5 blogs in India as ranked by, has a google page rank of 6 and has a subscriber base of close to 450 dedicated RSS feed subscribers, besides those that visit it daily on web via search. Also , the twitter followers of @sandygautam are increasing steadily and have reached 450 and the rate at which they are growing it seems they’ll grow way beyond the Mouse trap feed subscribers. With micro-blogging and twitter/ FriendFeed, I have found a new way to share links and ideas and deepen conversations and connect with my readers, that was not possible with just the Mouse Trap.

I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage all feed subscribers to join me at twitter (@sandygautam) to keep up to date on links that I don’t find exciting enough to write a blog post about or do not have much to add to, but which still are related to theme of what I write about and would make for a good read and need to be shared. I would also encourage new as well as veteran readers and subscribers, just for today,  to visit the mouse trap blog on the web and not in their feed readers (to celebrate its B’day, you are invited to the party at the web) so that they can become familiar with new social media tools I have put together on the Mouse Trap blog, like the ‘recommended by readers’ widget, the ‘top posts by PostRank’ widget or the ‘suggest topics to write’ widget.

Lastly as a primary caregiver, though my investment in the mouse trap has been more and my pride consequently in its progress has been immense; I must also thank all the other caregivers like you , the reader, or the peers like the other science blogs that have provided a safe and playful environment in which the Mouse Trap could flower or learn by peer play/ imitation learning. You all are a part and parcel of the Mouse Trap blog, so thanks everyone and take pride in your child’s development and maturation and now that it becomes more independent come forward and supplant the primary caregiver and let it achieve its full potential! Amen!

Children not mini-adults, at least in cognitive control

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