New research seeks to understand how attention affects how children navigate their social world and shapes differing views of threat and safety.
If you are around groups of young children, you will readily notice striking differences in how they approach the world around them. When thrust into a novel social environment, children will often respond in very different ways. Imagine a four-year-old’s birthday party at a local amusement center – in the US we have the dreaded Chuck E. Cheese. Some children rush in, straining to see and touch and climb on the blinking displays and games.
Others shrink back, looking visibly overwhelmed. Where one child sees thrilling opportunity, the other sees looming threat. The children who are at the extreme of the threat response are at increased risk for difficulty in school, poor peer relations, and the later emergence of social anxiety. Here we have two children who, when exposed to the same environment, are having very different experiences.
These evident differences in the “experienced environment” can often be traced to deeply rooted biological differences that shape the way children attend to, process, interpret, and ultimately react to the world around them. These temperamental differences emerge early, are stable over time, and can shape how individuals develop from infancy to late adulthood. My work has focused on one specific type of temperament – behavioral inhibition.
“Where one child sees thrilling opportunity, the other sees looming threat.”
In the mid-1980s, Jerome Kagan and Cynthia Garcia-Coll of Harvard University published a groundbreaking study describing behaviorally inhibited toddlers and preschoolers. When confronted with novelty, the behaviorally inhibited child will freeze, retreat, and refuse to engage – even in the face of seemingly positive invitations for social interaction.
Over the next three decades, researchers including Jerry Kagan and Nathan Fox, at the University of Maryland, traced the developmental arcs of these children from infancy through adulthood. Behaviorally inhibited preschoolers are more likely to be socially withdrawn in elementary school, and in turn to show elevated, even clinical, levels of social anxiety as adolescents. These children have fewer friends, may have difficulty engaging in the school setting, and often choose college majors and careers that buffer them from these social forces.
“Behaviorally inhibited children show hyper-responsivity in areas of the brain that are sensitive to both threat and reward.”
These individual differences are rooted in core biological differences. I was part of the team led by Nathan Fox, in collaboration with Daniel Pine at the National Institute of Mental Health, which found that behaviorally inhibited children show hyper-responsivity in areas of the brain that are sensitive to both threat and reward. In addition, their hearts race when they are exposed to novelty and threat, and they show increased secretion of stress hormones. When you consider how the body reacts when placed in a novel social situation, it is no wonder that children freeze and retreat.
We have also found that behaviorally inhibited children are more likely to be anxious if they have parents who are anxious, or if they are not exposed to regular social interactions early in life. In contrast, children who have warm and sensitive parents, or one or two close friends, are less likely to show anxiety later on.
Attention filters the environment
My work has focused on another component that shapes the downstream effects of early behavioral inhibition: attention. When coupled with normal developmental processes, daily activities featuring social interaction will typically work to diminish the risk of anxiety. Thus, behaviorally inhibited children are healthy, just a bit shier than their peers. However, patterns of attention can bind children to specific trajectories, focusing the child on potential threats and stubbornly resisting this normalizing process.
From birth, we are bombarded with more sensory stimuli than we could ever hope to process and respond to. We must therefore learn to selectively attend to those aspects of the environment that support our current goals. At the same time, however, we must remain open to unexpected, yet salient, events that can (and, perhaps, even should) disrupt our current plans.
This balancing act of attending to goals while responding to unexpected information is strongly rooted in neural development and is mastered slowly over time. Young infants can be captured by salient objects in their visual world – even something as simple as a toy on a mobile hanging overhead. Once their attention is captured, infants may have a hard time looking away.
This phenomenon, known as “sticky fixation,” begins to lessen at approximately three to four months of age. Over the course of childhood, increasingly sophisticated systems come on line so that the child is no longer dependent on external forces (exogenous control) and can now willfully direct his or her attention (endogenous control).
“This balancing act of attending to goals while responding to unexpected information is strongly rooted in neural development and is mastered slowly over time.”
Attention acts as a filter, allowing only a small part of the environment into the system. Without this filter, the system would almost immediately become overwhelmed and collapse. This is the case when a small, frightened child is frozen in place by the crushing, indistinguishable buzz of the school playground.
Distracting a child’s attention from a threat can decrease some forms of anxiety
My lab is trying to better understand the role of attention by first documenting differences in attention processes in behaviorally inhibited children. We then look to see if we can help ease the link between behavioral inhibition and anxiety by manipulating attention away from threat. We have found, counter to our original hypotheses, that when we use standard, computer-based tasks, behaviorally inhibited children do not necessarily show increased levels of attention to threat.
However, when behaviorally inhibited children do show increased attention to threat, they are much more likely to be socially withdrawn and anxious. We believe that it may be difficult to find a direct effect because the static objects (faces, words) used in our computer tasks to represent threat are not actually a threat to the child. Moreover, they do not capture the aspects of the environment that pose the most difficulty for behaviorally inhibited children, namely the need to deal with unpredictable and novel social partners.
“Behaviorally inhibited children tend to have a narrower view of their environment, particularly when interacting with a novel object or a new peer.”
As a result, we are now using mobile (ambulatory) eye-tracing technology to see how children actually navigate their social world, what they attend to, and how these patterns of attention then impact their behavior. Although our study is still in its early stages, we can already see that behaviorally inhibited children tend to have a narrower view of their environment, particularly when interacting with a novel object or a new peer. We have also found that distracting a child’s attention away from a threat can decrease some forms of anxiety and shape the way the brain responds to social cues.
This research on attention shows us clearly that the outsider’s objective view of the world around us tells us only very little about the child’s view of his or her world.
Chronis-Tuscano, A., Degnan, K. A., Pine, D. S., Pérez-Edgar, K., Henderson, H. A., Diaz, Y., Raggi, V. L., Fox, N. A. (2009). Stable, early behavioral inhibition predicts the development of social anxiety disorders in adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 48, 928-935.
Fox, N. A., & Pine, D. S. (2012). Temperament and the emergence of anxiety disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(2), 125.
The Flux Congress acts as a forum for developmental cognitive neuroscientists to share their findings, expand their knowledge base, and be informed of translational approaches. This conference, taking place in Portland September 16-18, 2017, is designed for scientists who use neuroimaging techniques to understand age related changes in brain function and structure.
The author of this blog post, Koraly Pérez-Edgar, spoke about affect-biased attention as a core mechanism of emotion reactivity and regulation during the Flux Congress.