Silvia Bunge’s Building Blocks of Cognition Laboratory is so-named for three reasons: First, the impressive array of human cognitive abilities arises from interactions among a set of core mental processes. The lab designs experiments to isolate some of these core processes. Second, cognition is ‘built’ as the brain matures. The lab conducts longitudinal research to identify the changes in brain structure and function over childhood and adolescence that can best explain individual differences in high-level cognition. Third, experience influences how the brain develops and functions. The lab studies whether practicing reasoning skills leads to changes in the brain and behavior.
My plans for the fellowship period
We have shown previously that elementary school children who played reasoning games improved on several cognitive measures, and that young adults who took a course on reasoning showed strengthening of connections within the brain network that underlies reasoning skills. While promising, this early work leaves open many questions: 1) Does practicing reasoning skills confer benefits outside the laboratory, such as improved academic achievement? Reasoning ability is a strong predictor of future math achievement, and therefore we seek to test whether improving reasoning skills could support mathematical skill development. 2) Why do some individuals in our studies show large gains in reasoning, whereas others show none at all? To predict who will benefit most from a specific cognitive intervention, we first must know exactly which cognitive skills are taxed by the intervention, and which specific cognitive functions an individual child needs to strengthen. To this end, my laboratory has developed several novel, sensitive eyetracking measures for use in our intervention studies. Ultimately, we will gain more traction once we understand how specific interventions affect the brain of a developing child. Thus, we seek to lay the groundwork for a structural and functional MRI study assessing experience-dependent brain plasticity in children.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Over the past decade, cognitive neuroscientists have come to the sobering conclusion that brain development is impacted by socioeconomic status (SES). Environmental factors related to low SES can negatively impact the development of the brain, including a region named prefrontal cortex that is critical for reasoning, and the basic cognitive skills that support it. These effects on brain development may lower the chances that individuals will have the necessary skills to complete their education and improve their life circumstances and those of their children. I propose to test whether helping low SES children to develop good reasoning skills could lead to improved academic success. To date, efforts to close the SES-related achievement gap have had only moderate success, because not all struggling children have the same cognitive difficulties. I seek to develop ways to determine when children are poised to benefit from practice with reasoning skills, and when they would benefit more from practice with more basic cognitive functions. This research is poised to yield clues regarding how best to support the academic achievement of disadvantaged children throughout the world.