Is there any point in telling an eight-year-old he or she has made a mistake? A new study from the you-are-your-brain department suggests not. Using MRI scanning Dutch researchers found that, in children aged eight and nine, the parts of the brain that control learning react strongly to positive feedback (“Well done!”) but scarcely respond at all to negative feedback (“You got it wrong this time”).

It was a different story with 11- and 12-year-olds, and young adults (18-25). Their “control centres” were more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback. The difference between the two groups of children surprised the researchers, who thought the brains of younger children would function more like those of the older group. However, they say it reinforces existing evidence that young children respond better to reward than to punishment, and that is because learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on as you did before.

And yet young children do make mistakes — and sometimes they deliberately do wrong things — so what do you do about an eight-year-old who rides his bicycle out onto a busy road when he has been told not to? Tell him, “Congratulations, you didn’t get killed this time”? And whatever happened to seven as the age of reason? Has it succumbed to the cultural emphasis on self-esteem and the gratification of children’s desires?

These are not questions the researchers deal with. What interests them is whether the difference between the younger and older children is the result of experience or the way the brain develops. Probably both, they suggest. In other words, kids gradually learn to learn from their mistakes and that learning process helps to configure the brain. The idea that a child’s brain develops certain capacities according to some timetable unrelated to the way they are brought up doesn’t make much sense. ~ Science Daily, Sep 27

 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet