Much of our work concentrates on understanding how specific socio-affective skills (i.e. empathy, theory of mind) and behaviors (i.e. helping, sharing) change over development and how such changes are driven by more general neurocognitive mechanisms (i.e. behavioral control, emotion regulation). This stream of research seeks to isolate developmental mechanisms as targets for intervention and enrichment with view to testing sensitive periods in social development. So far these endeavours have focused on behavioral control.
Training Behavioral Control
Behavioral control refers to the ability to defer gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals. It has been traditionally thought of as a stable trait across the lifespan but recent insights from cognitive neuroscience indicate greater malleability than previously believed. This suggests opportunities for enhancing behavioural control. In a large longitudinal study of 300 children aged 6-11 years we will test 1) if inhibitory control can be enhanced during childhood, 2) if this transfers onto other domains important for healthy psychological development such as learning and future-oriented decision-making and 3) which factors predict training success. Children will undergo behavioral control training for a period of several weeks and be compared to a group undergoing active sham-training of comparable stimuli and duration but without inhibition. Both short- and long-term effects of training will be assessed on domains of near- and far-transfer as well as on brain structure, function and connectivity. Given the importance of behavioral control for later physical and psychological well-being this research could generate a novel framework on early malleability of behavioural control with implications for interventions at the time point of greatest likely impact.
Instrumental control Learning
Learning that the environment can be impacted in biologically meaningful ways is crucial for subjective well-being and resilience to stress. Instrumental control refers to the experience that specific actions can lead to positive or negative outcomes. Research in animals and human adults has shown that while the experience of a lack of control can lead to heightened defensive behaviors, learning that one has a high degree of control can provide a buffer against stressful events. In this research stream we study how such experimentally controlled experiences impact learning and behavior across a variety of social and non-social situations in children. Importantly, we focus on a large age range in childhood to test whether there are sensitive periods in learning about the extent of one’s instrumental control.
effects of schooling on Behavioral control
Behavioral control has been shown to undergo important changes around the time that children enter schools. One critical question is whether such changes are brought about by the maturation of dedicated neural circuitry, which is under genetic control, or if the experience of schooling leads to such changes. We seek to disentangle the contributions of these factors to the emergence of mature forms of behavioral control.