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


  1. Tanya Mitchell on March 3, 2011 at 9:27

    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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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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