The Ontogenetic Origins of Complex Knowledge: PFC Contributions to Learning in Infancy


Denise Werchan

(Brown Unversity)

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Date: November 28, 2018


Infants learn and grow at rates arguably unmatched during any other period in a lifespan. A key question is how the developing child acquires these rich knowledge architectures and acts on the world with increasing efficiency and complexity. To explore this question, I will present research showing that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) supports learning and contributes to complexity in thought and action as early as infancy. Specifically, I will provide evidence that (1) infants recruit the PFC to organize environmental input into flexible rule structures that allow infants to make predictions about future events and generalize learning in new contexts, (2) a rule learning account of PFC function can explain infants’ inhibitory control errors on the classic A-Not-B task, and (3) rule learning exerts top-down control over infants’ visual processing. This research demonstrates that the human brain is predisposed to organize inputs into flexible rules that help infants make sense of the cluttered and rapidly changing multisensory world. Future work will explore how these systems scaffold the emergence of increasingly complex concepts and cognitive representations, and how this in turn shapes learning and cortical organization to adapt to the changing mind, body, and environment. Together, this work offers new insights into the dynamic mechanisms that contribute to complexity in thought and action as children grow and develop.

Created: Friday, November 30th, 2018