The way adults think is vastly different from the way that children think. In this lesson, we'll explore cognitive development and look at how infants begin to think like adults, including the concepts of information processing and memory.
Kelly is a new mom who loves to play with her son Patrick. They like to play peek-a-boo and play with toys, like a rattle. She takes him to the park and is able to look at the world through his eyes; everything is new and exciting. All of the old, boring things that she takes for granted, like a simple mailbox, are fascinating and magical.
Kelly is watching Patrick develop. Human development is the process of growth and change that all humans go through. Part of this development involves coming to understand the world and the things around oneself. Knowledge and understanding are part of cognitive development, or growth in knowledge, understanding and learning. 'Cognitive' just means 'thought processes,' so essentially, cognitive development is looking at how a person's thinking changes.
For example, Patrick thinks their mailbox is magical; one minute, it's empty, and then, the next time his mother looks inside, there are all sorts of letters and catalogs. What a magical place that makes things appear out of thin air!
Of course, as Patrick grows, his thinking about the mailbox will change. He will learn how the mailbox works: that a mail carrier puts those things into the box, and his mother takes them out. He will stop thinking about the mailbox as a magical place and see it for what it is. His cognitive development will allow him to change the way he perceives the mailbox.
Let's look closer at two key areas of cognitive development - information processing and memory - and how infants use them.
When Kelly takes Patrick to the park, he is overwhelmed with new information. His senses go haywire figuring out what all this new stuff around him is. His eyes take in the bright sunlight and big trees. His ears hear the birds chirping and children laughing. And his nose breathes in the smell of dirt and flowers. All of this is information is entering through his senses, and Patrick needs to make sense of it.
The process of making sense of the world is called information processing. Think about the human brain like a computer. All of this information comes in from our senses, just like a line of code on a computer. The information can be about the park, like it is with Patrick, or it can be about advanced calculus or what book that cutie at the coffee shop is reading. Regardless of the content, the information enters our brain.
Then, our brain translates that information into a coherent understanding. Patrick will figure out that all of the information he's receiving has to do with life in the park, for example. It's like the computer is taking a series of 1s and 0s and translating it into an accounting program or an image of the Mona Lisa.
One of the key components of information processing is attention. Information slams into our brains all the time - way too much information for us to process. The information enters our brains through our senses, and then, we either discard the information or we pay attention to it.
Think about what happens when you try to read a book in a public place, like a coffee shop. With enough concentration, you are able to focus on the book and 'tune out' the rest of the things going on. You don't notice the sensation of the chair underneath you or the smell of coffee. Sounds begin to fade into the background as you become absorbed in your book. You are discarding all the information about the coffee shop: the chair, the coffee, the conversations. It all gets relegated to the background because it's not important to what you are doing now.
But if something were to happen that was important (say, someone fires a gun in the coffee shop or a friend says your name), you would notice it. Your attention would be drawn to that information so that you could react.
Being able to control your attention (to focus on your book instead of the coffee shop, for example) is a key part of information processing. Once you can say, 'I'm going to pay attention to this, not that,' you are better able to control what information you process.
In the first four months of life, infants become better and better at managing information, including attentional processes. At first, Patrick might be overwhelmed by all the new information about the world around him, but pretty soon, he learns to focus in on what's important. He can direct his gaze to the kids on the swings in the park instead of looking at the kids on the jungle gym. He's giving his attention to the swings because that's the information that he wants to process.
If information is attended to, the brain can then store that information, which turns it into memory. Let's go back to the coffee shop for a moment: you're reading your book and tuning out the rest of the coffee shop. Later, you might remember the plot of your book, but you won't remember most details of the coffee shop, like how many people ordered coffee and how many ordered tea. You are paying attention to the book and not the orders people are placing, so that is what you will remember.
Infants are no different from adults; they only remember what they pay attention to. If Patrick is watching the swings, he won't remember the kids on the jungle gym as well as those on the swings. Infants as young as a few months old show signs of memory for things. They can recognize someone who they've seen before, for example.
So, if infants can remember things, why don't adults retain memories from before about age two or three? There are two things that might contribute to infant amnesia, or the fact that most people cannot remember things from before toddlerhood. First, brain development is so rapid at that age that infant memories that are stored may not be retrievable later, after the brain has developed further.
Another contributing factor to infant amnesia has to do with autobiographical memory. This is the type of memory that has to do with your own life and experiences. For example, remembering that time that you fell off your bike and broke your arm is autobiographical memory; remembering who the president was in 1939 or how to tie your shoes are not autobiographical memories.
Autobiographical memory does not seem to emerge until the preschool years. Before that, infants don't really understand that they are unique people and that their lives are a series of stories that only they have complete access to. And because autobiographical memory does not emerge until the preschool years, it's possible that we don't remember anything from infancy because we never stored it at all.
Cognitive development is the growth of understanding and thinking. A key component to cognition is information processing, which involves taking sensory input and understanding it. Attention is an important part of information processing, and attentional control begins to emerge around four months of age. Finally, if information is processed and stored, it turns into memory, which can be seen in infants as young as a few months old. Infant amnesia, or the inability to recall memories from before age two or three, perhaps occurs because of brain development or because autobiographical memory does not emerge until the preschool years.
Following this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Define cognitive development
- Explain what information processing is and how it relates to attention
- Describe how memory develops and why infant amnesia occurs