Thursday, February 19, 2009

Attention, Motivation and the Prefrontal Cortex

Interesting ideas on attention and how it relates to motivation:

From Attention and Motivation: The Dana Guide

Motivation and attention are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which is to the rest of the brain what a conductor is to the orchestra. The functions of the prefrontal cortex are elusive but critical and are often referred to as executive functions.
Some of what I read last year about attachment theory and how it relates to neurobiology seems to indicate that the development of the prefrontal cortex is partly influenced by early emotional experiences:

from Attachment Theory and the Brain

Bowlby (a doctor who did pioneer observational studies on infants isolated from their families by hospitalization) referred to that attachment behavioral system as if it were a physical part of the brain. Without the benefit of brain scans, Bowlby hypothesized that this was something hard-wired into the human brain. It turns out, that this was true.

What we have discovered is that the area, right behind the eyes, the orbital prefrontal cortex, is quite specialized in functions having to do with attachment. It turns out our brains are very social, and that the prefrontal cortex seems to be quite important in functions having to do with interpersonal relating. For example, that part of the brain is involved with emotion regulation, empathy, and facial recognition, just to name a few. We also know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed at birth, and that the fully functioning prefrontal cortex of the parent helps to develop that section of the brain in the infant.

from Attachment Theory, Neurobiology and Psychopathology

Self-regulation seems to be one of the primary functions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain..... The ability to handle stressful stimuli is a higher cognitive function of the brain.

Interpersonal relationships help a child’s brain simulate the same functions of his parent’s brain to organize its own processes and perceptions. A child’s self-regulation, including his nervous systems stems from the exchange of these interactions and attachments with his parents...... Parents become mirrors of their infant’s emotions and the architects for the development of the brain. Repeated experiences become encoded in memory and biological responses. These experiences create expectations and anticipation, and will be used as mental models to establish the survival mechanisms for a child. This complex orchestration becomes the primitive source of a child and adult’s behavior.
There have been many studies that have shown that children raised in emotionally deprived circumstances actually show atrophy in the prefrontal cortex comparable to that of physical trauma to the area. This article, Research Claims Children's Brain Function Affected by Poverty, says:

"Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response."....The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex.
My family has often been below the poverty line as have many other families I know whose children are by no means cognitively impaired. So my guess is that this study's results has more to do with the "stressful environments" and emotional and language impoverishment than with anything to do directly with one's income.

I rather worry about these studies that associate poverty with cognitive deprivation because often the "solution" seen as necessary is cognitive enrichment in a preschool, which it seems to me would exacerbate the original problem by taking the children out of their families and putting them in a mostly artificial environment. The only early intervention programs that have shown long range success have been ones where the parents were closely involved in the program and the intervention was done in the context of the home.

The article goes on to mention that some high-income kids can fall into the exact same pattern of impaired prefrontal cortical function. So again, it probably has nothing to do with income per se but rather with upbringing.

Many studies on children from orphanages or hospitalized children show the same impaired function of the higher executive processing that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Here's just one of many you can find, Orphanage experience alters brain function:

Nearly all the children were in the normal range of intelligence and showed age-appropriate skills in reasoning ability. However, more than half of the children showed extreme difficulties in paying attention to verbal information.

"When children had to listen to words, remember a task and act quickly, many of them had a hard time," explains Pollak, who adds that these multiple tasks are similar to the ones children must perform in the classroom. Although the children had difficulty on this test of attention, Pollak says they didn't display other behavioral symptoms of ADHD, such as hyperactivity or impulsiveness.

"The behaviors that relate to attention are linked to the pre-frontal cortex and motor skills are controlled by the cerebellum. Both of these regions are the last parts of the brain to develop and can continue to develop for years after birth," explains Pollak. "If children are in neglectful situations, these parts of the brain may not receive the ideal amount of stimulation for healthy development."

The article goes on to mention that to a large extent, later upbringing (say, adoption into a loving family) can make a huge difference in these original deficits.

There is an interesting series on executive function at About Kids Health. Executive function is the modern term for the regulative functions of the brain including attention, motivation, impulse control and emotional response.

How do we learn to think? How does an easily distracted baby become an adult who can evaluate a problem, make a plan to solve it, and carry out the plan? Executive function – the conscious control of what we think and do – takes years to develop fully and affects many different facets of children’s mental development, from their understanding of other people’s points of view to their ability to focus on a task.

One more article: Is Attention Related to Motivation?

In our work with teachers, we frequently ask, "In your experience, what are the most common impediments to student achievement in your classrooms?" Almost without fail, at the top or near the top of the list is the big "M" word: MOTIVATION. Asked to elaborate, teachers cSo what does this have to do with attention? It is easy for most of us to pay attention to things that are really interesting or exciting to us. But it is difficult for most of us to pay attention to things that are not.
While reading through all these articles and several more, I started to think of Charlotte Mason's insistence on full attention as a prerequisite for learning. Most of today's conventional wisdom seems to indicate that to increase attention, you should focus on what interests the child (or try to foster interest -- the last article in this list has some tips for doing that).

But it suddenly occurred to me, partly because of my own experience with my kids, that it works a bit the other way too. A child is more likely to be interested in something if he has given it his full attention in the first place. Charlotte Mason was inclined to think of this willingness to attend as a sort of habit. It was to be supported by giving the child ONLY things that were interesting and worthwhile in their own right.... things of the natural world and the best that has been thought and said, in the form of books. In that way, the habit of attention would not be betrayed by an unworthy object.

She often talked about how the children would become intensely interested in their often quite challenging readings. It strikes me that if attention and motivation develop in the same places of the brain, that probably one place to look if motivation seems to be lacking is in the amount of attention that the child is paying to the reading.

Going back to the bits about the prefrontal cortex being developed by intimate stable relationships with parents or other primary caregivers..... I don't think Charlotte Mason said anything specifically about this but a lot of what she said seemed to imply that she thought in terms of safety and stability in the early years, and developing relations with the outside world based upon that foundation.

Those things build a sort of scaffold or pattern model for advances in maturity. Now most of the articles acknowledged that children vary from each other in temperament (and if you have cognitive disabilities like my 9 year old, that throws another element into the mix; the prefrontal cortex could actually be physiologically injured and part of the job of education would be helping insofar as possible to heal and restore).

A child with a very sensitive temperament may find normal things scary and scary things almost unbearable, and so might show some signs of insecure attachment in the early years. But reasonably competent (it doesn't have to be PERFECT) parenting can still help with drawing the child past its immaturity level into a higher level of confidence and competence. Aidan had some attachment issues in his first couple of years because of the amount of time he spent in the hospital in pain, and also because he didn't learn to talk and understand until relatively late. Time and patience has done much. He still has episodes and is challenging in various ways, but he's made a lot of progress.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your post, but I find so much neuro-research to be reductionist. As you point out, there are other factors involved. In fact, I myself was a very motivated learner as a child and I did not have an ideal childhood.

Also, what I find problematic with these types of studies is that basic: correlation does not prove causation. It might not be the poverty in itself that leaves a child unmotivated - it can be other things in their environment. The other thing is that I have a problem pathologizing poor children.

In fact, teaching at colleges and universities I find that certain kids from more stable upper middle class backgrounds were the least empathetic and less willing to learn.

It's much like the same way that "sociopaths" are characterized. What if someone's brain was neurological fit and yet they did brutal things that were against societal norms? It's like poverty, inadequate parental care, and the brain are assumed to underlie problems. But we can see some pretty bad problems among people who were well to do, had good parental care and might have brains that are considered "normal."

What is considered dysfunction is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder - or in some cases in the eyes of their victims.

Aside from that, I congratulate you for caring so much for your child. I'm sure one day he will realize what a great mom he had.