A young child’s first snow is not only fun but also a rich learning experience – figuring out that the driveway is slippery, that snow will mush in your hand, and just how much snow is needed to build a snowman. Each of these steps requires children to take in external feedback about the environment, so that they know what to do – or not to do – for future snowfalls. A new study for the first time shows a distinct brain response to such feedback in children as young as 2.5 years old, and that response predicts learning and later behavior.
“I am fascinated by how young children engage with their environment, while, at the same time, successfully carrying out actions that pose a non-trivial challenge for them,” says Marlene Meyer of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior in the Netherlands. “Feedback is especially important for learning in early childhood, as toddlers strongly rely on external signals to determine the consequences of their actions.”
While toddlers clearly use external feedback to learn, until now scientists have not known if their brains respond to feedback in a similar way as adults. Using EEG in past studies, researchers have found that feedback processing produces distinct electrical signals in the frontal parts of the brain – the area of the brain that is last to develop in young children.
“When we receive feedback on our actions, we process this information in the frontal regions of our brain,” Meyer says. “Typically, if the feedback we get indicates that our action was incorrect, our brain processes this differently than when the feedback we get indicates that our action was correct.”
Feedback on incorrect actions displays a more negative amplitude in EEG recordings than feedback for correct actions. This amplitude difference is a neural marker called “feedback-related negativity.” Researchers have found a link between feedback-related negativity and learning and adaptive behavior.
Meyer and colleagues conducted a study in which 2.5-year-olds played a simple touch-screen computer game while the researchers measured EEG activity. The children would see three animal cards, with two showing the same animal (e.g. a lion) and one showing a different animal (e.g. a pig). Then, the middle card – say, the lion – would remain visible while the two other cards would be shuffled. The children then had to choose one of the two face-down cards to find the matching lion.
“The moment the children touched a card, the card would turn and reveal the animal, lion or pig, and this served as feedback about the correctness of their choice,” Meyer says. If they chose the correct card, an additional animal sound was played. Next, the card would turn back face-down again. The children then got a second attempt.
“On the basis of their first choice, they could theoretically know which card would be the correct one, namely either the one they had just chosen, in case it was correct the first time, or the other one, had they chosen the incorrect one first,” she says. “The toddlers’ second choice could inform us about whether they had learned from the feedback.”
The EEG data collected during this game showed brain activity similar to adults for feedback processing, with a more negative reading for incorrect versus correct answers, as published this month in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Moreover, the stronger the differential brain activity, the better the toddlers performed during the game.
“Overall, our data show a functional feedback processing system in 2.5-year-old toddlers,” Meyer says. “That is astonishing given that frontal brain regions, which are crucially involved in feedback processing, are still structurally immature in early childhood.”
Meyer found the toddlers’ enthusiasm very inspiring. “Some of the toddlers did not become tired of finding lions, pigs, cows or bears and played the game more than 50 times – being more concentrated and enthusiastic than most adults after many repetitions in an EEG study,” she says.
The findings indicate individual differences in feedback processing and subsequent learning between toddlers. “Whether these differences are based on general individual differences, developmental differences, or differences in motivation during this particular game between toddlers cannot be determined on the basis of the current data,” she says. Disentangling the contributions of these factors in future work could help to inform educational strategies.
This study is an important step in setting the foundation for exploring the interplay between structural brain maturation, cognition, and emotional factors for feedback processing in early childhood. “Monitoring the consequences of one’s actions is crucial for successful learning,” Meyer says. “Feedback informs us about the consequences of our behavior and thus provides essential information for successful learning.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “Neural Correlates of Feedback Processing in Toddlers” by Marlene Meyer, Harold Bekkering, Denise J. C. Janssen, Ellen R. A. de Bruijn, Sabine Hunnius, was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience on January 6, 2014.