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Children learn even when not paying attention – Canadian study

Children’s apparent inability to pay attention allows them to outperform adults when it comes to retaining information they were instructed to disregard, say researchers.

Their study found that, as expected, adults do well at focusing their attention on an assigned task but do not pay attention to information they are told to ignore. Children, on the other hand, absorb the secondary information they are instructed to ignore when given the same task. The information is then encoded in their brains.

“We found is that children's brains can hold information in a way adults’ brains do not,” said Yaelan Jung, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of Toronto and in her current position as a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University.

“Although it’s not a foreign idea that children have poorer attention abilities than adults, we did not know how this would affect the way their brains receive and hold other information. Our study fills this knowledge gap and shows their poor attention leads them to retain more information from the world than adults.”

The paper is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

One of the co-authors, Amy Finn, associate professor, in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s department of psychology, said: “It’s not simply that children’s ability to pay attention is bad and they’re unable to disregard distractors. Our findings suggest their brains are built to be sensitive to all information, relevant or not, and that kids are more sensitive to more information.

“Depending on your definition of childhood, humans are children for eight or nine years. Compared to other species, that’s a long time, and one explanation for such a lengthy childhood is that we humans have so much learning to do. Another is that it’s important for our IQ to take in as much information as we do. Still another is that we need to take in all this information as children for our brains to be wired properly, to develop the circuits and pathways for processing information.”

MedicalXPress reports that the study involved 24 adults with a mean age of 23 years, and 26 children with a mean age of eight years. Participants were asked to observe a series of four static illustrations: a bumble bee, a car, a chair and a tree. Each image was accompanied by a background of grey dots moving in one of four directions: up, down, left and right.

In one phase of the study, they were instructed to ignore the moving dots and press a button when an object – the bumblebee, for instance – appeared more than once. In another phase, they were asked to ignore the objects and press a button when the direction of motion of the dots was repeated.

Subjects carried out their task while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine at the Toronto Neuroimaging Facility at the University of Toronto. The MRI measured their brain activity. which revealed how attention shapes what is represented in subjects’ brains.

“What we found provides a novel way to think about what brain development means,” said Jung. “Often, we assume that as the brain develops, it will do more, and do things better. So we often think that adults are better and smarter than kids.

“However, our work shows this is not always the case. Rather, children’s brains may just do things differently from adults – and consequently, they can sometimes do more than adults.”

Added Finn: “The study suggests that this approach of being more sensitive to the broader environment, at the cost of paying attention to specific things, is better for understanding complex systems. It may help form a higher level of understanding of our full environment.”

Study details

Neither Enhanced nor Lost: The Unique Role of Attention in Children’s Neural Representations

Yaelan Jung, Tess Forest, Dirk Walther, Amy Finn.

Published in the Journal of Neuroscience 24 May 2023


A defining feature of children's cognition is the especially slow development of their attention. Despite a rich behavioural literature characterising the development of attention, little is known about how developing attentional abilities modulate neural representations in children. This information is critical to understanding how attentional development shapes the way children process information. One possibility is that attention might be less likely to shape neural representations in children as compared with adults. In particular, representations of attended items may be less likely to be enhanced relative to unattended items. To investigate this possibility, we measured brain activity using fMRI while children (seven to nine years; male and female) and adults (21–31 years; male and female) performed a one-back task in which they were directed to attend to either motion direction or an object in a display where both were present. We used multivoxel pattern analysis to compare decoding accuracy of attended and unattended information. Consistent with attentional enhancement, we found higher decoding accuracy for task-relevant information (i.e., objects in the object-attended condition) than for task-irrelevant information (i.e., motion in the object-attended condition) in adults' visual cortices. However, in children's visual cortices, both task-relevant and task-irrelevant information were decoded equally well. What is more, whole-brain analysis showed that the children represented task-irrelevant information more than adults in multiple regions across the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. These findings show that (1) attention does not modulate neural representations in the child visual cortex, and (2) developing brains can, and do, represent more information than mature brains.


Journal of Neuroscience article – Neither Enhanced nor Lost: The Unique Role of Attention in Children’s Neural Representations (Open access)


MedicalXpress article – Children are learning even if they don't pay attention, study finds (Open access)


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