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The age of uncertainty

Now that they've grown out of their terrible twos, it turns out toddlers have a lot on their minds. New research suggests that three-year-olds are capable of introspection - and even know when they've made a mistake. Tralee Pearce reports

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Globe and Mail

September 11, 2007 at 8:50 AM EDT

It's one of the great mysteries of parenting: Just what is going on in that toddler's mind?

To find out, curious parents enrol themselves and their tots in baby sign-language classes and visit so-called baby whisperers to glean anything they can about their children's developing thoughts.

Now, a researcher has identified a new clue that could add to the understanding of how small children think.

Simona Ghetti, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, has found that an element of introspective thinking called uncertainty monitoring occurs in children as young as 3.

Uncertainty monitoring is the thought process that occurs when a person thinks about saying or doing the wrong thing. It has generally been believed that this ability doesn't develop until age 4 or 5.

But Dr. Ghetti, who has tested 55 children to date, found that this is not the case. "Even three-year-olds are more confident when they give the right answer," she says.

Dr. Ghetti, who also works at the university's Center for Mind and Brain, attributes the widely held view that younger toddlers are incapable of introspection to methodology.

Because previous methods relied on verbal testing, and children under 4 are in many cases still developing their speaking skills, "there has been a tendency to underestimate children's abilities."

To overcome the challenge of interviewing children with limited verbal skills, Dr. Ghetti and colleague Kristen Lyons devised a method using images to see if children could tell investigators what they were thinking as they answered questions.

The children were shown blurry, pixelated images of objects such as an airplane or a frog and asked to identify them..

Then, they were shown images of a child looking confident and a child looking uncertain, and asked to pick the one that represented how they felt.

Generally, children who did not identify the picture correctly also reported feeling uncertain about their answer, and vice versa.

Dr. Ghetti won't go as far as characterizing them as mini-Descartes pondering big issues of the day, but she argues that finding the early stages of a "mental metric ... suggests there is something meta about their thinking." In other words, they can think about thinking.

Jen Crespi has noticed that her three-year-old son, Matthew, will look up from a puzzle for reassurance if he has made a right move.

She suspects this is a sign of introspection.

"I see a lot of sophisticated thinking going on in his head, but because of his lack of vocabulary it goes unsaid," she says, adding that the notion of uncertainty monitoring makes sense to her.

Dr. Ghetti conducted two other studies that led her to believe that uncertainty monitoring appears earlier than other introspection skills.

One was a verbal labelling task involving clear images of items a toddler might recognize but not have a word for, such as a faucet.

A third involved a memory task in which a toddler would be shown an image, then later asked to remember it and pick it out of two images.

In these two tasks, four- and five-year-olds were more confident when they were giving the right answer, but this did not happen at the age of 3.

Unlike in the first test, they just did not report being uncertain when they didn't know an answer. This difference could help researchers figure out potential age boundaries on various introspection skills.

Dr. Ghetti theorizes that the first test - the one with blurry or pixelated images - is fundamentally different than the other two.

"The drawing itself is a reminder of your uncertainty about what it is," she says. "It's sitting in front of you. You can appreciate over and over that you can't quite tell what it is."

Knowing more about how toddler minds are working could be a boon to educators and parents alike.

Toronto mother Dana Driesman looks forward to watching for flashes of introspection as her 2 1/2-year-old, Mikayla, approaches the age of 3.

"We don't give kids enough credit," she says. "If parents are aware, they might facilitate this kind of brain function."

Dr. Ghetti says a possible next step is to measure the consequences of the skill.

"Do children ask more questions when they're uncertain? Do they require more help from adults in their environment when they're uncertain? Or do they withhold answers?"

There are implications for the legal and therapy worlds, in which issues about true or false memories can arise.

By asking toddlers to evaluate their state of knowledge, psychologists could understand to what extent they could be taken at their word, she says.

In adults, uncertainty monitoring is a crucial skill used to navigate through life.

"If you know you don't know, you're going to find ways to find out, to learn more, to ask questions, to prevent you from saying something you don't want to say," she says. "Adults use this ability all the time."

So for the most part, Dr. Ghetti is intrigued by tracing the origin of introspection to toddler brains in order to get a clearer picture of how it works.

"We need to identify the beginning, the building blocks of any function," she says. "You can't do that until you go back in time."
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