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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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