Saturday, February 24, 2007

Are cognitive improvements preceded by behavioral deterioration?

After several weeks of discouraging behavioral deterioration, a child of my acquaintance abruptly demonstrated a new sent of cognitive skills. As of the past few days, he is able to connect "good behavior" with the accelerated return of privileges, to make an internal and prolonged attempt to "behave well", to comprehend the delayed gratification of earning a future allowance [1] incrementally, to grasp the meaning of a "budget" and of "change", and to understand that "change" can be saved for future actions.

This is a staggering amount of new capability that appears to have manifested all at once, though clearly it must have been building for some time. It implies a significant new range of behavioral affordances (levers) that we and he can use.

I find it interesting that these new capabilities were preceded by weeks of discouraging behaviors that felt like a regression. Is this correlation entirely coincidental? In retrospect it seems we've seen this before -- a step forward preceded by a half-step forward.

This suggests a testable hypothesis:
  1. Significant cognitive improvements reflect significant changes to the deep structures and networks of the prefrontal cortex.
  2. These transformations are akin to redoing the engine and transmission of a running vehicle, or rewiring the circuits of a flying 747, or replacing the software of a running server module by module. In each of these cases we would expect system performance to deteriorate, even to "crash" periodically.
  3. We would then expect, in humans, that major changes to critical cortical systems would be associated with substantial behavior and cognitive disruptions.
This could be tested by longitudinal measurement of cognitive performance and behavior in a cohort of children, looking for correlation between behavior disruption and subsequent cognitive improvement.

In the meantime, the hypothesis is useful for getting parents, family and teachers through those nasty and discouraging bad patches. Consider them as "growing pains of the mind".

[1] The current allowance scheme, which has been substantially more successful than expected, works like this:
  • allowance is displayed in a visible jar in the kitchen. Any removal of items from the jar causes a reset to the starter level.
  • 50 cents at the start of a cycle
  • 5 - 10 cent payments for various positive actions (we don't pay for the absence of negative actions, that has never worked in any form) such as getting dressed on awakening, unloading the dishwasher, feeding the dog, staying in bed until 6:30am, paying a game for 10 minutes with a sibling, etc.
  • allowance claimed after 7am Saturday.
  • all of the siblings get the same amount of money as the child who earns the allowance.
The last of these is the inspired step -- providing an incentive for sibling collaboration and fostering favor/reward sibling transactions. We may migrate to separate transactions and varying share levels as things evolve.

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