A team of researchers has shown that children’s apparent inability to pay attention allows them to outperform adults when it comes to retaining information they were told to ignore.

The researchers’ study shows that, as expected, adults do an excellent job of focusing their attention on the assigned task and not paying attention to information they are told to ignore.

Children, on the other hand, absorb the additional information they are instructed to ignore when given the same task. The information is then encoded in their brain.

“What we found is that children’s brains can store information in a way that adults’ brains can’t,” says Yaelan Jungwho worked on the research as a graduate student at the University of Toronto and in his current position as a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.

Researchers used a series of four simple symbols to test how well adults and children paid attention (image courtesy of Jung, Finn, et al.)

“Although it is not a new idea that children have poorer attention spans than adults, we did not know how this poor attention span would affect the way their brains receive and store other information,” she says. “Our study fills this knowledge gap and shows that children’s poor attention span leads them to retain more information from the world than adults.

The team described their research in a paper published in Journal of Neuroscience.

In addition to Jung, the authors are: Tess Forest, who also contributed to the study as a graduate student at U of T and in his current position as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University; and Dirk Bernhardt-Walther and Amy Finn – both docents in the psychology department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s not simply that children’s ability to pay attention is bad and they can’t ignore distractions,” says Finn. “Our research suggests that their brains are wired to be sensitive to all information, whether it’s relevant or not – that kids are more sensitive to more information.

“Depending on your definition of childhood, people are children for eight or nine years,” she says. “Compared to other species, this is a long time, and one explanation for such a long childhood is that we humans have so much to learn.” Another thing is that it is important for our IQ to take in as much information as we do. The second is that we need to take in all this information as children to properly wire our brains, develop circuits and ways of processing information.”

The study involved 24 adults with an average age of 23 and 26 children with an average age of eight. The team asked participants to observe a series of four static illustrations: a bumblebee, a car, a chair and a tree. Each image was accompanied by a background of gray dots that moved in one of four directions: up, down, left, and right.

In one phase of the study, participants were instructed to ignore moving dots and press a button when an object—for example, the bumblebee—appeared more than once. In the second phase, they were asked to ignore the objects and press a key when the direction of movement of the dots was repeated.

Subjects performed their task while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine at the Toronto Neuroimaging Center at the University of Toronto. As they completed the task, MRIs measured the subjects’ brain activity, revealing how attention shapes what is represented in the subjects’ brains.

“What we found in this study provides a new way of thinking about what brain development means,” says Jung. “Often we assume that as the brain develops, it will do more and do things better.” Thus, we often think that adults are better and smarter than kids. However, our work shows that this is not always the case. Rather, children’s brains can just do things differently than adults – and as a result, they can sometimes do more than adults.”

Finn added: “The research suggests that this approach of being more sensitive to the wider environment, at the expense of paying attention to specific parts, is better for understanding complex systems.” It can help form a higher level of understanding of our entire environment.

“So I see kids as these little information-processing creatures who are better able to represent more of the world, with brains that reflect the world more accurately than ours.”

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