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Nir Shalev, Hannah Wilkinson, Sage Boettcher, Gaia Scerif, Anna Christina Nobre; Temporal regularities guide spatial attention in young children. Journal of Vision 2020;20(11):1050. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.11.1050.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
A fully developed human mind constitutes a predictive system, continuously exploiting regularities in our environment to anticipate events proactively. However, it is unknown whether this fundamental property of behaviour exists in younger ages. There are certain trade-offs between cognitive abilities most relevant at childhood vs. adulthood. For example, the system may favour learning and exploration in early development, and goal-driven exploitation in adulthood. Recently, we developed a novel visual search task, in which participants detect multiple targets appearing and disappearing dynamically amidst distractors. In adults, spatial-temporal regularities implicitly facilitate performance. We adapted this task for testing five-year-old observers (N=87). On each trial, children searched for eight targets which appeared among distractors in a dynamic display. We used images of airplanes, bugs, and birds as targets and distractors, which gradually appeared and disappeared on a textured background split into four quadrants (see appendix) over extended trials lasting ~12 seconds. The target category was assigned randomly at the beginning of the first experimental block, and then replaced in the second one. Participants used a touch screen to indicate detected targets. Critically, four out of eight targets were predictable in their onset time and spatial quadrant, while the other four appeared at random times and locations. Participants found significantly more predictable compared to unpredictable targets, indicating that children learned the spatial-temporal associations and anticipated task-relevant events (see appendix). This effect appeared over the two blocks, highlighting a flexible capacity of learning new regularities. More broadly, we discovered that young children are capable of implicitly learning complex spatial-temporal regularities, and form predictions to anticipate task relevant events. As this capacity could be highly relevant for the typical development of goal-directed behaviour, we additionally report how various task markers relate to teacher reports of attention differences, and compare performance with a group of neurotypical adults.
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