Young children have one cognitive talent that most adults have forgotten.
That is the ability to pay attention to everything.
As adults we learn to focus our attention and block out distractions.
But, sometimes being distracted means noticing and learning more.
Professor Vladimir Sloutsky, study co-author, explained:
“We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults.
But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage.
That’s what we found in our study.
Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they’re asked to focus.
That can sometimes be helpful.”
The study had adults and children watching a series of shapes appearing on a screen.
Some, they were told to look for; others (‘non-target shapes’), they were supposed to ignore.
Adults did slightly better at spotting the shapes they were supposed to be looking for but, said Professor Sloutsky:
“…the children were much better than adults at noticing when the non-target shape changed.
What we found is that children were paying attention to the shapes that they weren’t required to.
Adults, on the other hand, tended to focus only on what they were told was needed.”
Professor Sloutsky continued:
“The point is that children don’t focus their attention as well as adults, even if you ask them to.
They end up noticing and remembering more.
The ability to focus attention is what allows adults to sit in two-hour meetings and maintain long conversations, while ignoring distractions.
But young children’s use of distributed attention allows them to learn more in new and unfamiliar settings by taking in a lot of information.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Plebanek & Sloutsky, 2017).