Social reasoning and brain development are linked in preschoolers — Queen’s study

New research at Queen’s University shows that the way preschool children understand false beliefs can be linked to particular aspects of brain development. This landmark research may aid in understanding developmental disorders such as autism.

One of the most important ways that preschool children develop socially is by learning how to understand others people’s thoughts and feelings. As they mature, most children discover that people’s thoughts and feelings about the world and the way the world really is may not agree.

“We know that specific areas of the brain are active when adults think about others’ thoughts,” says Queen’s psychology Professor Mark Sabbagh. “But our findings are the first to show that these specialized neural circuits are there as early as preschool years, and that maturational changes in these areas are associated with preschoolers’ abilities to think about their social world in increasingly sophisticated ways.”

Researchers compiled EEG results for 29 four-year old children who were engaged in a series of behavioural tasks, and analyzed the activity levels in different regions of the brain when assessing whether another person’s thoughts and feelings agree with the way the world really is.

Children with more mature patterns of activity in two specific areas showed more sophisticated understanding of other peoples’ false beliefs. By understanding how the typical social brain develops, researchers can investigate what happens when social reasoning is impaired, as occurs in autism.

“Individuals with autism seem to have special difficulty understanding false beliefs, which in turn leads to difficulty with several aspects of social interaction, such as practical aspects of language and deception,” adds Professor Sabbagh. “By studying the specific areas of the brain identified in our study, researchers may now have starting points for understanding the neurodevelopmental abnormalities that give underlying autism.”

Professor Sabbagh’s full research paper is being released today in the July/August journal Child Development.

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