Cognition and emotion development connected
By Catherine Doss, College of Science
Martha Ann Bell has 108 children.
That’s 108 very healthy, active, alert – but at the same time, very different – children. And no, of course they are not her own, but as she and her research colleagues have watched these same youngsters grow and mature over time, she feels like they are part of her family.
Bell, associate professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, and her research team are studying how cognitions and emotions are related in children and how this relationship changes as children develop from infancy on into their preschool years. The group has launched phase two of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has received additional NIH funding to significantly increase the sample size. Bell will soon have many more children to call “hers.”
Cognition is a broad term used to label various types of thought processes and brain functioning activities. Examples of cognition include problem solving, attention, and memory, just to name three. In fact, memory itself is measured in several different ways. For the purposes of her study, Bell focuses on what’s called “working memory,” the kind of memory that enables us to hold information in our head for a brief time and then update the information as we solve a problem.
It’s something even infants can do and is especially important when children enter school and begin developing reading and math skills.
Emotion, on the other hand, is simply defined as a mental state that is an autonomous, rather than conscious, action. It is closely associated with a child’s “temperament,” and we are all born with certain temperamental characteristics. Some babies are easily frustrated, some are more shy or fearful, some are outgoing.
“A child comes into this world with a temperamental disposition that is associated with certain patterns of emotion reactivity,” Bell says. This is especially evident to parents who have more than one child. “Over time, usually between the ages of three and four, children learn how to regulate their emotional reactions so that they are appropriate for the situation.”
The regulation of emotion in children is based on a number of things, including temperament, brain development, learned behavior, and parental guidance.
“The premise of our research is that working memory and the ability to regulate emotions begin to develop separately, and then over time, they come together so that they are working with each other,” Bell says. “Your working memory abilities assist you in regulating your emotions. And your emotions assist your working memory.”
Looking at cognitive development by itself, or at emotional development by itself, which has been the norm until recently, gives an unsatisfactory and very simplified view of development, Bell says.
“Cognitions and emotions interact with each other in very interesting ways and we believe that this ocurs in very different ways in different children. The intriguing thing from a developmental psychology perspective is how cognition and emotion end up becoming integrated in the first place.”
Bell’s research is carried out in Virginia Tech’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, also known as the CAP (Cognition, Affect, and Psychophysiology) Lab. The infants and children in her study contribute two physiological indicators of cognition and emotion: heart rate and brain wave activity. During testing, children are hooked up to a heart rate monitor, and each wears a cap that records electrical impulses from various parts of the brain.
The heart monitor patches measure number of beats per minute as well as the amount of elapsed time between beats. The time between beats typically changes from being more variable to more constant as working memory kicks in. Research shows children who have more variability between beats are also able to better regulate and control their emotions.
The electroencephalogram (EEG) caps measure naturally occurring electrical activity within groups of neurons. This enables researchers to see how different areas of the brain are used for different tasks and how that changes developmentally over time.
The EEG provides functional information about the developing brain by recording electrical activity from the scalp with the assumption that the origin of these electrical signals is the brain itself. The EEG signal is spontaneous but context-related, with the signal generated during quiet rest being different from that generated during such mental activity as working memory.
“We notice a really big difference in EEG patterns of activity between infancy and preschool,” Bell says. “When preschoolers perform tasks, specific areas of the brain are involved for each task, compared to infants where the whole brain is involved. So over time, the brain becomes more specialized and efficient.”
Furthermore, recent cognitive neuroscience findings suggest that the neural mechanism underlying emotion regulation may be the same as those underlying cognitive processes.
The brain has different systems or networks to process cognitive and emotional information separately. The cognitive subdivision has interconnections among the anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, and premotor and supplementary motor areas of the brain. This subdivision is activated by such tasks as working memory.
The affective subdivision, which is activated by emotion-related tasks, has interconnections among the anterior cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus.
Until recently, it was believed that the affective subdivision was suppressed during cognitive processes and vice versa; however, recent studies of adults have indicated interaction between the two, especially on certain types of tasks.
“Our study examines the processes by which emotions may organize behavior and modify thinking and learning, as well as the processes by which cognitive processes help regulate emotion behaviors in infants and young children,” Bell says.
The first phase of Bell’s research involved randomly selected infants who visited the CAP Lab at five months of age and again at 10 months. The babies were fitted with heart-rate patches and EEG caps and were given developmentally appropriate tasks to perform. These included memory tasks, attention tasks, and emotion tasks.
An example of a working memory task might be to show the infant a toy hidden beneath one of three cups. The infant is then gently and momentarily distracted and then prompted to try to remember which cup the toy is under.
“It’s very rare for 5-month-old infants to be able to do this successfully,” Bell says. “But at 10 months, the working memory ability begins to form, and they are able to perform the task and do it in a way that is associated with specific heart rate and brain wave patterns.”
In addition, parents complete several questionnaires as a means of assessing their children’s overall temperament and behavior.
The same children return to the lab at ages 2, 3, and 4 years.
Bell’s previous work was the first to add EEG data to the body of knowledge regarding working memory development in infants. This data indicated a definite change in brain activity when working memory tasks were presented to the infant. It also demonstrated that individual differences in working memory functioning were related to individual differences in brain electrical activity and temperament in infancy.
All of Bell’s research is basic science rather than applied. That is, it contributes new information and data to the base of scientific knowledge that already exists about infants and children.
“What we do is important work because it yields so much invaluable information about infant and young child brain development associated with developing cognitive and emotion skills,” she says. “In the future, people who do applied work will take the information we contribute and use it as the basis for what they want to do.”
In spring 2007, Bell received a five-year, $1.8 million dollar grant from NIH to expand her study. Approximately 100 new infants and children will be added to the longitudinal study in Blacksburg and the New River Valley. In addition, the grant will allow colleague Susan Calkins, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, to also join the study with 200 more participants.
“Thus, in effect, we will expand our original sample four times, from 100 children to 400 children in two different geographical areas,” Bell says. “Having that large of a sample will allow us to do statistical analyses that can model developmental changes over time.”
The fact that the project is longitudinal gives Bell and her researchers the ability to study how working memory changes from infant to early childhood. This is the first research of its kind to track this kind of information over several years.
“How emotion regulation changes from infancy to childhood has been studied a lot by developmental psychologists,” Bell says. “But we don’t know how working memory develops during that same time period, so the findings of this study will be a major contribution to the developmental research literature.”
In the future, Bell would like to expand her study to include a visitation with the same children at age 6, when they are ready to start first grade.
“I hope to do some pre-math and reading readiness measures with the children and have their first-grade teachers complete questions about the children’s social and academic behaviors in the classroom,” she says.
Bell would also like to add some of the participants’ mothers to the study to look at possible cognition/emotion relationships between parent and offspring. So far, she and Virginia Tech psychology colleague Kirby Deater-Deckard have invited 15 mothers to come to the lab. These women completed questionnaires about themselves and performed computerized versions of working memory tasks while wearing EEG caps and heart rate patches. The results from this small sample were used as preliminary data for a grant application on mother/child cognition and psychophysiology submitted by Bell and Deater-Deckard.
Bell credits her graduate students with playing an invaluable part in her research.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to work with graduate students and have them get excited about the research also,” she says. “I also enjoy seeing them produce their own research ideas and projects and having their work contribute to the scientific knowledge base.”
Recent graduate students on the Bell research team have included Christy Wolfe, Denise Adkins, and Jonathon Roberts. Current students include Kacey Morasch, Annie Cardell, and Lisa Buonomano.
Bell says that one of her greatest rewards is seeing “her” children come in to the lab over the course of several years.
“We develop a relationship with these children and their parents. These personla relationships are incredibly rewarding. It’s good to do science and to know that we’re contributing to the basic literature of developmental psychology, but above and beyond that, it’s a lot of fun.”