Infants know when something is wrong

Researchers discover basic brain circuitry involved in detection of errors already functional in infants.

baby scan 88 (photo credit: )
baby scan 88
(photo credit: )
The origin of the human "executive attention" system - related to decision making and task switching, and which has implications regarding the development of attention - goes back to infancy rather than the age of about two-and-a-half, as was previously thought. This discovery has been confirmed by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with help from scientists at the University of Oregon. The findings have just been published online ahead of publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The presence of an executive-control system in six-month-old children was a surprise. While infants are not yet able to regulate their behavior when detecting their own errors, the researchers wrote, "our data indicate that the basic brain circuitry involved in the detection of errors is already functional." BGU's Dr. Andrea Berger (formerly a postdoctoral student at the University of Oregon) and Dr. Gabriel Tzur conducted new tests in her electro-physiology lab in BGU's behavioral sciences department with 24 infants (14 males and 10 females) between six and nine months of age. The infants were shown one or two dolls in a videotaped puppet theater. Their view was then blocked briefly and the number of dolls was left unchanged, or one was added or removed. As in their earlier research, the infants looked longer if the screen was removed and the number of dolls differed from the previous exposure. Using brain-sensor technology developed at the University of Oregon, they confirmed often-debated findings from 1992 that showed infants as young as six months know when an arithmetic solution is wrong. Berger, her students and lab staffers started their work about four years ago, based on a method used a decade ago by Dr. Karen Wynn at the University of Arizona. Wynn, after much experimentation, reported that infants can discriminate among different small numbers of items and quantify small numbers of items without consciously counting them. By using harmless electrodes, scientists are now able to document the electrical activity taking place in a baby's brain when he or she is looking at mathematical equations, Berger explains. In the new study, the infants wore special brain-monitoring netting manufactured by Electrical Geodesic, a company in Oregon. The 128-electrode netting allowed for much more extensive brainwave monitoring than was available previously. According to the data, analyzed in Oregon, the mean time for infants who saw the same number of dolls before and after was 6.94 seconds. Their gaze lingered longer (8.04 seconds) when the number of dolls differed. Berger is reluctant to speak about applications of her findings, but others in the field believe that babies could be screened before they can walk for language deficit and even dyslexia, and that training and treatment could then be offered to minimize or even head off such handicaps. The findings might one day even help the Education Ministry devise ways to teach math more effectively. PLANTS FROM COCONUTS Can plants be grown without earth and fresh water? Hishtil (, the 32-year-old plant nursery at Moshav Nehalim, thinks they can, using pulverized coconut shells and a closed system of recycled water. Called Hishpele, the new technological application is based on coconut waste imported from India and Sri Lanka and packaged in special plastic bags by the Plamix company. Growing plants on a medium in plastic bags and isolated from the ground prevents them from picking up plant diseases and pests. The medium does not have to be "worked" and the plants need not be sprayed with pesticides. Hishtil's annual domestic production is currently over 450 million plants on a greenhouse area of over 180,000 square meters; it also owns three nurseries in Turkey and Italy, and has exported knowhow to set up nurseries in Greece, the Canary Islands and Central America. The plants it grows represent 500 species, varieties and clones of ornamentals, vegetables and herbs. Hishtil reports that experimental cultivation of plants using Hishpele in Spain, Holland and Canada has increased yields, and also observes environmental protection regulations on water reuse that are likely to be adopted in Israel. SERIOUS GAMING IN ACADEMIA Some people might think that computer games are a waste of time, but the four-year private Elmhurst College in Chicago begs to differ. The newest academic major in the college is "computer game and entertainment technology." The program is "academically rigid, and technical," says computer sciences chairman Dr. William Muellner. "Rather than playing games, it's about coding, computer math and advanced computer graphics. In no way is this about merely creating games or just playing and watching games. It's definitely not lightweight." "We felt that a new major, with courses that intertwined the concepts of graphics, simulation and network-based multimedia, was justified," said Prof. Jim Dauer, who is coordinator of the college's master's program in computer networking systems. "There's a growing demand for these types of skills. The skill set required to enter fields concerned with game design and virtual reality is really quite unique." Job opportunities exist not only in game design, but also in the development of digital entertainment systems and digital multimedia components. Several fast-growing fields (such as law enforcement, medicine and even the military) make use of computer-based instructional media that combine graphics, networking, animation and simulation.