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Attentive learning: Understanding mechanisms by studying outcomes, risk and protective factors

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Attentional control plays a crucial role in biasing incoming information in favour of what is relevant to further processing, influencing encoding into memory and long-term learning. However, assessing attentional control processes over developmental time highlights how they are best understood not simply as a control homunculus, but rather as bidirectionally influencing and influenced by multiple factors. Today I will focus on three complementary lines of evidence pointing in this direction. The first line of work will focus on experimental manipulations engaging children and adults to highlight the interplay between attentional control, memory and learning. A combination of behavioural and electrophysiological data suggests similarities and differences in how children and young adults differ in the extent to which they deploy attentional control to optimize maintenance in memory. This experimental work is complemented by longitudinal data, showing how individual differences in attentional control predict foundational predictors of early learning and their change over time. The second line of work centres on children receiving early genetic diagnoses associated with very high risk of attention deficits in later childhood. The specific molecular pathways implicated in each case point to changes in functional gene networks involved in neural development and responsivity to environmental stimulation, rather than specific or localised lesion-like deficits. Longitudinal findings suggests that early differences in attention between and within supposedly homogeneous genetically identified groups, as well as individual differences in other domains, predict variable learning outcomes. Finally, and most recently, I have been fortunate to work with colleagues who study attentional control and educational outcomes under conditions of high environmental risk associated with very low income. These data suggest that, again, individual differences in attentional control predict learning outcomes, but that there may be unexpected buffering factors in the environment associated with better than expected outcomes, even under conditions of very high environmental risk. In conclusion, we have used complementary approaches to investigating the mechanisms of attentive learning. In turns, these findings suggest that attentive learning itself is malleable, and that understanding variability in good outcomes, as well as weaknesses, may help guide more effective intervention.

I read Psychology at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland), spending a year as a visiting student at Queen’s University, in Canada. I then moved to London for a PhD at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, supervised by Professors Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Jon Driver, in close collaboration with Prof Kim Cornish (now at Monash University, Australia). After a brief visiting fellowship (now developed into an ongoing collaboration) at the Sackler Institute of Developmental Psychobiology, Cornell University, in 2003 I became a lecturer in the School of Psychology, University of Nottingham. I have been based in Oxford since October 2006. My research group focuses on the development of attentional control and its underlying attentional difficulties, from their neural correlates to their outcomes on emerging cognitive abilities. Understanding these questions involves combining the study of typical attentional control with research on atypical development at risk of poor attentional control development: 1) conditions with a well-defined genetic aetiology (e.g., fragile X syndrome, Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, sex chromosomal trisomies); and 2) complex behavioural syndromes of mixed aetiology (e.g., AD/HD). Ultimately, this work is of interest both to basic neuroscience and, most importantly, to the families and individuals who are affected by these differences.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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