Babies are competent. All of them.

#freshfromthelab: Ana Maria Portugal reports on Prof Gaia Scerif's contribution to the symposium in honour of Annette Karmiloff-Smith.


Dr Gaia Scerif was one of the amazing scientific contributors to the symposia honouring Annette Karmiloff-Smith last month. She came from the University of Oxford where she leads the Attention, Brain and Cognitive Development research group. Gaia completed her PhD with Annette in the early 2000’s, and the mentorship sparked future collaborations and a deep friendship. Gaia investigates how genetic and environmental factors constrain the development of attention. She showed us some of her work with genetic disorders and with typical development.


Gaia’s seminar followed three top science ideas (all quoted from Annette):

  1. “Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders,” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1998). This means that development is the interplay between genes, brain function and cognition, and its temporal trajectory is very important to the outcomes.

  2. “If you want to get ahead, get a theory,” (Karmiloff-Smith & Inhelder, 1975). This means that science (sound human knowledge) should be built on top of theory. We need to observe, derive a theory, and re-observe to validate it!

  3. “Do not study children just because you like them,” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, 2000).

Development is the study of change and the study of the interactions between the cognitive system and the environment. Babies are not just cute little things. They are developing humans. Observing their development gives us clues about how the brain is structured and how it functions.


More details on how Prof Gaia Scerif proceeded to do all of that can be found below. Let us stop for a moment and reflect on how these ideas can inspire us as parents of both typically or atypically developing children.

1) “Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders.”

Why is it that not all autistic children show the same repetitive behaviour? Why is it that not all introverted children want to avoid all relationships with new people? Why is it that not all bilingual children start speaking later than average?


It is all about how a specific genetic predisposition interact with each other and with the environment. A child with an introverted temperament, a passion for nature and parents who have a social life marked by few deep relationships will develop differently from a child with a similarly introverted temperament, but combined with a passion for food and parents who spend much time entertaining many guests in their home. The first may adapt very well to his environment and be able to fulfil his passion without missing out on a few one-to-one deep relationships. The second may find it life more challenging, ending up overeating to avoid engaging in numerous, shallow social interactions at his parents' party. This is just an illustration, but it would be helpful for us parents to think about our children in terms of their unique set of characteristics and work towards making the most of it!


2) “If you want to get ahead, get a theory,” (Karmiloff-Smith & Inhelder, 1975)

It is so easy to become overwhelmed as parents. Deep in the chaos of sleepless nights and friendless days, we can easily feel that it's all a big mess and the only option is waiting it out. "It's a phase," we hear other parents say, and we just hope this one will be over soon. It’s important to remember that development is a series of "phases," and wishing for them to pass quickly is the same as wishing our child's childhood away.

The truly amazing thing is that, if we approach those phases in a constructive way, we will end up learning so much from them and we will be utterly blown away by the wonders of our child's development. We’ll also be surprised by our own progress and by the complex and beautiful work nature. This will fill your family with joy and passion, however typical or atypical we may be.


So, how do we "approach those phases in a constructive way?" We take it from Dr Karmiloff-Smith and we work at building our theories. It will require systematic observation, informed hypothesising and empirical validation. In other words, we first take a step back and observe what is actually going on (writing down a few notes a day can help, you can request our tool here). Then, we will come up with our own theory of why things are as they are. Our theory will be informed by the info we have collected on the topic - you can attend one of our workshops or read our blog to get your parental education started! YOU will need to come up with a specific theory about your specific child in a specific "phase.” FInally and crucially, we test our theory to see if it really is a good explanation for what we have observed.

That's what we, at BabyBrains, call “learn through observation, validate through experience” and is encapsulated in our L.O.V.E approach. The fabulous thing about it is that (as for scientists and babies) failure does not exist. Whatever you observe in your "validation" phase will bring you knowledge about your child, about yourself and about the world. Ultimately, that's what makes parenting so enjoyable. It is the deepening of a relationship with an ever-changing, ever-surprising, and deeply loved human being.


3) “Do not study children just because you like them,” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, 2000)

Yet another encouragement to engage with our babies and children as with fully functioning and competent human beings in development. They are not accessories -- things to have before you turn a certain age, like a car or a house. They are not a chance for us to experience vicariously what we could not experience first-hand. They are not the pre-person they will be when they become adults.

Just like us, they are people working within their genetic predisposition, maturation level and environments to make the most they can out of life. If we look at them closely, they will reveal so much about the human mind and its development throughout life.

Now let us get back to Gaia's work on babies and how they pay attention to the world.

Attention, particularly in children, is very complex to study. Attention is hard to define and measure. Attention can be the time a baby spends looking at an object (either the parent’s face or a toy), his/her capacity to disengage his/her look from a familiar object and orient to a novel one, or even the difficult ability to inhibit looking at distracting objects when attending to a more relevant target. All types of attention are important for your child’s development, and they are all important roots that underpin cognitive abilities.

Scientists think that attention plays a crucial role in biasing (e.g., filtering) information in favour of what is most relevant to the child’s short and long-term goals by acting as a gate for what is to get processed by the brain. Attention can shape what a child learns from the environment. It’s very important, especially during the first years of life when babies are learning quickly about their physical and social surroundings. Their brains cannot process all of the possible information, so they need to filter some out. Attention is just what they need to do that.


When something gets your baby’s attention, the object of attention is likely to be taken to further cognitive processing (e.g., memory encoding, learning, action) than un-attended objects. This means that what your baby attends to, and how long they attend to it, influences what he/she learns. Gaia wants to convince us that this can also happen in the other direction. What your baby just learnt influences what, where and how long he/she is going to attend in the future. Incidentally, that is also what Silvia researched during her PhD. This means that what is being learnt now is very powerful in shaping what subsequently is going to be learnt. How this loop works is one of the scientific puzzles of Gaia’s interest.

One method that Gaia uses to tackle the attention puzzle is to studying genetic disorders associated with a high risk of attention difficulties. Her PhD dissertation pioneered mapping attention difficulties in small children with Fragile X Syndrome (FXS). FXS is a single gene disorder with a simple and well-defined genetic profile. Interestingly, FXS brings with it a high variability of individual strengths and weaknesses. How can it be that individuals diagnosed as having the same gene “silenced” can express such a wide range of abilities? How come that some patients are resilient?


Gaia studied whether or not early differences in attention could explain later features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in FXS children. To answer this question, she ran a study with children diagnosed with FXS. She administered a classic psychological game where children needed to catch a fish or a cheese by responding to a target stimuli that occurred infrequently and irregularly in a stream of repetitive stimuli. She found that different domains of attention (either auditory or visual attention skills) predicted the ASD and ADHD traits respectively in these children 12 months later.


Her take-home message from this research is that mapping genes to behaviour is not a simple story, and that it all comes to the individual developmental trajectory.

Gaia’s work with genetic disorders shows that the way children develop attention abilities can predict later behavioural and intellectual outcomes by promoting cascading effects over time. She then decided to move further by investigating attention in typical development.

She presented one study where she wanted to discover how attention was concurrently and longitudinally related to numeracy and literacy. She found that some aspects of attention were contemporarily associated with precursors of literacy and numeracy, while others were related to future reading and math abilities. Her take-home message is that there is good evidence that individual differences in attentional skills are related to present and future classroom performance.


Gaia is also interested in the potential mechanisms for the interplay between attention and learning. She suggests that memory can be a mediator. She presented a study where she showed that brain activity markers of attention could differentiate children with good and poor memory, and another showing how familiarity of stimuli (long-term memory) was influenced by how attention was directed.


Gaia’s studies have implications on the scientific understanding of attention development. They also have implications on the design of training and education programs targeted to infancy and toddlerhood. Gaia thinks that attention cannot be trained alone as a muscle but should be exercised in the context of the skills we want to nurture.


Gaia’s scientific journey has contributed to the scientific understanding of attention processes and development by adding evidence of its bidirectional influence with prior experience. In her talk, Gaia argued that attention development is dynamic. It influences learning and memory, but it is in turn influenced by what is learnt. What your baby just learned now and what he keeps in memory from prior experience will guide what he/she is going to attend in the near future. This interplay can shape the emergence of other specific skills, like numeracy and literacy.

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