The development of consciousness in childhood in relation to Executive Function (EF) skills is one that psychologists are just beginning to understand.

Dr. Phil Zelazo is Reflection Sciences’ co-founder and the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. In this online lecture featured by The Science Network (TSN), Zelazo describes the findings of his research exploring the development of neural bases of executive function (EF) — the conscious control of thoughts, actions, and emotions.

In his work, Zelazo often uses the Dimensional Change Card Sort, a measure of EF that can be used with a wide range of ages and functioning levels. In this task, children are shown two boxes, for example, one with a blue rabbit on it and the other with a red car. They are asked to sort a series of test cards (e.g. red rabbits and blue cars) according to one dimension, such as color. After a few trials, the children are told to stop playing the first game (color) and switch to another (e.g. shape). What he found is that regardless of which game (color or shape) is presented first, it is typical for three-year-olds to continue to sort by that first game, despite being told the new rules on every trial and responding correctly to questions about each game, even post-switch. But why?

Dr. Zelazo describes this phenomena as an aspect of an ordered competing systems model of the early development of executive function (EF) skills. He explains that the development of EF and intentional action can be understood in terms of hierarchical “stages” of consciousness in which information is reprocessed, or reflected upon. According to this notion, referred to as the Levels of Consciousness model (or LOC model), as children age, their abilities to self-reflect and control their thoughts increase, allowing for more flexibility in thinking and control across a wider range of situations. This flexibility in thinking and control allows children to reflect on the new rules of the game, pause, consider their options, and respond.

Consciousness is one of the most exciting mysteries being investigated in the neurosciences and social sciences today,” says Dr. Zelazo. “And that’s what really motivates me.”

Watch the full lecture here.

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