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Childrens’ Self Control and Creativity: Two Seeds of Intelligence

Most parents want the best for their children and hope they will be healthy, happy and smart individuals. And most parents wonder what they should do to make sure this happens. In Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina (author of Brain Rules), provides a good summary of cognitive science findings that shed light on how a baby’s brain grows from 0 to 5.  In this book you learn as much about factors inherent to a child that parents cannot control (the seeds) as about factors that parents can control (the soil). What follows is an excerpt from the “Smart Baby: Seeds” chapter in which John Medina describes the many “ingredients that make up the human intelligence stew”.

2. Self Control

A healthy, well­-adjusted preschooler sits down at a table in front of two giant, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. It’s not a kitchen table—it’s Walter Mischel’s Stanford lab during the late 1960s. The smell is heavenly. “You see these cookies?” Mischel says. “You can eat just one of them right now if you want, but if you wait, you can eat both. I have to go away for five minutes. If I return and you have not eaten anything, I will let you have both cookies. If you eat one while I’m gone, the bargain is off and you don’t get the second one. Do we have a deal?” The child nods. The researcher leaves.

What does the child do? Mischel has the most charming, funny films of children’s reactions. They squirm in their seat. They run their back to the cookies (or marshmallows or other assorted caloric confections, depending on the day). They sit on their hands. They close one eye, then both, then sneak a peek. They are trying to get both cookies, but the going is tough. If the children are kindergartners, 72 percent cave in and gobble up the cookie. If they’re in fourth grade, however, only 49 percent yield to the temptation. By sixth grade, the number is 38 percent, about half the rate of the preschoolers.

Welcome to the interesting world of impulse control. It is part of a suite of behaviors under the collective term executive function. Executive function controls planning, foresight, problem solving, and goal setting. It engages many parts of the brain, including a short­-term form of memory called working memory. Mischel and his many colleagues discovered that a child’s executive function is a critical component of intellectual prowess. We now know that it is actually a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s not a small difference, either: Mischel found that children who could delay gratification for 15 minutes scored 210 points higher on their SATs than children who lasted one minute.

Why? Executive function relies on a child’s ability to filter out distracting (in this case, tempting) thoughts, which is critical in environments that are oversaturated with sensory stimuli and myriad on­demand choices. That’s our world, as you have undoubtedly noticed, and it will be your children’s, too. Once the brain has chosen relevant stimuli from a noisy pile of irrelevant choices, executive function allows the brain to stay on task and say no to unproductive distractions.

At the neurobiological level, self­ control comes from “common value signals” (measures of neural activity) generated by a specific area of the brain behind your forehead. It is called—brain jargon alert—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Another area of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, throws out bolts of electricity to this ventromedial cousin. The more practice a child has in delaying gratification, the better aimed the jolt become, and the more control it can exert over behavior. Researchers originally discovered this while having diet­ conscious adults look at pictures of carrots, then switching the picture to candy bars. Their brains exerted powerful “I­ don’t­ care­ if­ it’s ­sugar­ you can’t­ have ­any” signals when the choco­late appeared.

A child’s brain can be trained to enhance self­ control and other aspects of executive function. But genes are undoubtedly involved. There seems to be an innate schedule of development, which explains why the cookie experiment shows a difference in scores between kindergartners and sixth graders. Some kids display the behaviors earlier, some later. Some struggle with it their entire lives. It’s one more way

Every brain is wired differently. But children who are able to filter out distractions, the data show, do far better in school.

3. Creativity

[…] Human creativity involves many groups of cognitive gadgets, including episodic memory and autobiographical memory systems. Like a TiVo recording a sitcom, these systems permit the brain to keep track of events happening to you, allowing you a reference to your personal experiences in both time and space. You can recall going to the grocery store and what you bought there, not to mention the idiot who stubbed your heel with a grocery cart, because of these episodic memory systems. They are separate from the memory systems that allow you to calculate the sales tax of your purchase, or even remember what a sales tax is. But that’s not all episodic systems do.

Scientist Nancy Andreasen found that these TiVos are recruited when innovative people start associating connectively—making the insightful connections across seemingly unrelated notions that allowed to them to create. The TiVos reside in brain regions called association cortices, which are huge in humans—the biggest of any primate, in fact—stretching out like cobwebs across the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes.

A second set of findings associates creativity with risk-taking. This is not the kind of foolishness where you as an undergraduate ate two 16­inch pizzas in one sitting because someone named Tom­ Tom dared you (don’t ask). Abnormal risk­ taking, which is also associated more with substance abuse and bipolar mania, does not make you more creative. There is a type of risk ­taking that does, however, and the research community calls it “functional impulsivity.” Researchers uncovered two separate neural processing systems that manage functional impulsivity. One governs low­ risk, or “cold,” decision­making behaviors? the other governs high­ risk, or “hot,” decision ­making behaviors. A cold decision might involve a child going to a favorite restaurant with a friend. A hot decision might involve ordering the nuclear inferno chili appetizer on the friend’s dare.

[…] Whatever their gender, creative entrepreneurs have functional ­impulsivity instincts in spades. They score atmospherically high on tests that measure risk­ taking, and they have a strong ability to cope with ambiguity. When their brains are caught in the act of being creative, the medial and orbital sectors of the prefrontal cortex, regions just behind the eyes, light up like crazy on an fMRI. More “managerial types” (that’s actually what researchers call them) don’t have these scores—or these neural activities.

Related article: Brain Rules: science and practice

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  1. This is the current book on my nightstand. This is a great book for baby showers or new moms. I loved the study that talked about praising effort instead of how smart a child is. We know in our own training that as long as we have effort from the student that we can help them.

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