In my research I study the early development of executive control: our ability to control what we pay attention to, and how we regulate our emotions, in a given situation.
Currently, an overwhelming body of research in the area takes the following approach: Stage 1: scientists devise an abstract experimental paradigm to test how well a child can voluntarily control either their attention or their affect (emotion). Stage 2: scientists run tests and observe correlations between children’s performance on these tests and any one of a variety of long-term cognitive or clinical outcomes. Stage 3: scientists conclude that in that case, executive control must be really important.
My work is motivated by what I see as some of the inherent problems with this approach. The first problem is that of construct validity: do our experimental assessments of executive control actually measure something meaningful in a real-world sense? Indeed, is it possible to abstract a ‘pure’ measure of attentional or affective control 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 you can. But correlations don’t prove causation, and several people, myself included, have tested the idea that training ‘pure’ executive control might improve real-world outcomes, and generally found that it doesn’t (although it does improve performance on other experimental assessments of executive control).
The second aspect of my work is to develop new theories, and approaches, to understanding how executive control develops. The starting point for this work is that idea that executive control is expressed through our interactions with the physical and social environment around us. Executive control isn’t something within us; it is a property of how we interact with the world.
So for me, studying the early environment – including both the physical environment (sights and sounds) and the social environment (people around us) – is every bit as important as studying what’s inside us. This involves developing new m miniaturised wearable autonomic arousal monitors, microphones and video cameras that can be used to collect day-long recordings from children and their parents in home settings, and using concurrent dual neuroimaging (EEG) during free-flowing naturalistic child-parent and child-stranger interactions.
Currently, we’re working on three different areas. The first looks at how we learn to make predictions and anticipations based on different types of regularity in our early social and physical environment. This includes two different types of pattern that might be important in helping children to learn to make predictions and anticipations. The first is interactive contingencies – i.e. ‘every time X happens, then Y reliably happens afterwards – from ‘banging a table reliably makes a noise’ to ‘smiling at people reliably elicits a smile in return’. The second is periodic temporal patterns – from regular rhythms in infant-directed speech through to daily routines. We’re looking at how these regularities affect how the brain learns to anticipate, and make predictions, and at how our ability to predict changes over time. If you’re interested, some papers on this are here and here.
The second looks at how we learn to correct, moment-by-moment, for changes in the outside world to maintain stable levels of autonomic arousal in the face of a changing environment – which is known as self-regulation. We are looking at the dynamics of how we self-regulate through our interactions with our environment. And we are looking at the counterpart of that: how dysregulatory dynamics can develop in atypical development. Some papers on this are here, here, here, here, here and here.
The third looks at how executive control guides how we allocate our attention on a moment-by-moment basis, in naturalistic settings. This includes studying how attention is controlled when we are on our own, in solo settings; but also studying how social influences affect executive control over short- and long- time frames. Some papers on this are here, here and here.
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. (in press). Allostasis and metastasis: the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology https://psyarxiv.com/cth4m/download?format=pdf
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