Currently, academic researchers and practitioners who are interested in understanding individual differences in children place a strong emphasis on the executive functions: our ability to control what we pay attention to and how we behave in a given situation.
An overwhelming body of research takes the following approach: Stage 1: scientists devise an artificial experimental paradigm to assess a child’s ‘pure’ executive function ability – irrespective of setting or context. Stage 2: scientists run tests and observe correlations between children’s performance on these tests and any one of a variety of long-term socioeconomic or sociodemographic outcomes. Stage 3: scientists conclude that in that case the executive functions must be really important.
In my work, I try to point out some of the inherent problems with this approach. The first problem is that of construct validity: do our experimental assessments of executive functions actually measure something meaningful in a real-world sense? In stripping away everything extraneous to get a ‘pure’ measure of a cognitive faculty, have we in fact thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Indeed, is it possible to abstract a ‘pure’ measure of executive functions aside from specific settings, and specific contexts?
You might think, as many do, that the correlations shown between these experimental measures and long-term outcomes prove that none of these are real problems. But correlations don’t prove causation – there really are a lot of different possible reasons why the same children who perform better at these tests also have better long-term outcomes. And several people have tested the idea that executive functions might causally relate to long-term outcomes – such as by training executive functions and measuring the effect on long-term outcomes – and returned overwhelmingly negative results.
The second, positive aspect of my work is to develop new theories, and approaches, to get round this problem. The starting point for this work is that idea that executive functions are expressed through our interactions with the physical and social environment around us. Executive functions aren’t something within us; they are a property of how we interact with the world.
To do this we’re developing new methods – including miniaturised wearables and dual EEG – to study how children interact with, and are influenced by, their social and physical environment. And we’re using these to study the different environments in which young children spend their time, and how children interact with them.
Full, up-to-date publication lists are available on Google Scholar and Researchgate. Resources for researchers are also available, with articles on methods, analysis and the big picture. An overview of collaborators can be found here. A description of Sam’s current 5-year European Research Council Fellowship project, on how infants’ biological rhythms entrain to the social and physical environment during early life, can be found here.
Wass, S.V. (in press) The origins of effortful control: how early development within arousal/regulatory systems influences cognitive and affective control. Developmental Review.
Wass, S.V., Whitehorn, M., Marriot Haresign, I., Phillips, E., Leong, V. (2020) Interpersonal neural entrainment during early social interaction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.01.006
Wass, S.V., Smith, C.G., Daubney, K.R., Suata, Z.M., Clackson, K., Begum, A., Mirza, F.U. (2019) Influences of household noise on autonomic function in 12-month-old infants: understanding early common pathways to atypical emotion regulation and cognitive performance. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 60(12):1323-1333 doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13084
Wass., S.V., Smith, C.G., Clackson, K., Gibb, C., Eitzenberger, J., Mirza, F. U. (2019). Parents mimic and influence their infant’s autonomic state through dynamic affective state matching. Current Biology 29(14), 2415-2422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.016
Wass, S.V., Noreika, V., Georgieva, S., Clackson, K., Brightman, L., Nutbrown, R., Santamaria, L., Leong, V. (2018) Parental neural responsivity to infants’ visual attention: how mature brains scaffold immature brains during social interaction. PLoS Biology. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2006328
Leong, V., Byrne, E., Clackson, K., Lam, S. & Wass, S.V. (2017). Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. 114 (50), 13290–13295, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1702493114