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Nature as Important as Nurture in Developing Ability for Flexible Self-Control
Research is showing that life experiences have great impact on how we grow up and how we function in life. It is my belief that experience in nature is core learning experience to deal with our complex environmental relationships as adults who make decisions for family, work and community. This research bears out that belief:
Your ability to follow the rules of the road when driving on unfamiliar streets exists thanks to the way your pre-teen life experiences influenced the development of your brain. Individuals deprived of normal life experiences may lack this ability to control their behavior in novel situations, a new computer model suggests, providing insight into how nature and nurture may interact in the development of self-control.
"This model is the first to offer an explanation of how the neural circuits that allow us to apply rules and strategies to new situations develop," David Noelle, assistant professor of computer science and psychology, said. "Our model provides an account of how the special properties of certain brain systems combine with life experiences to allow us to apply what we have learned to new situations. This account sheds light on why this ability sometimes fails, and on how brain damage can impact this ability."
Researchers have known for some time that cognitive control, which is our ability to respond in an appropriate way even when faced with strong impulses to do otherwise, appears to depend on a brain area known as the prefrontal cortex. It is also known that the prefrontal cortex develops slowly compared to other brain areas and only matures late in adolescence.
The computer model developed by Noelle and his colleagues offers the first detailed explanation of how the special properties of the prefrontal cortex allow it to learn from life experiences and to flexibly identify appropriate rules, goals and intentions and apply them in new situations.
"Our model provides an account of how nature, in the form of specific neurobiological mechanisms, and nurture, in the form of breadth of experience, interact to produce flexible self-control," Noelle said.
The use of computer simulation methods allowed Noelle and his colleagues to examine hypothetical cases that cannot be ethically investigated in the laboratory, such as removing the special physiological properties of prefrontal neurons or grossly limiting the range of experiences provided during development. These analyses revealed that prefrontal neural specializations and exposure to tasks that require the extended exercise of cognitive control are both necessary for the proper development of prefrontal cortex. When either was absent, the model became inflexible -- it could not apply rules or strategies to situations that differed from the ones present when it originally learned the rules or strategies.
The model also offers additional information about why the prefrontal cortex takes so long to mature. Since the prefrontal cortex imposes control on other brain areas, those other areas must stabilize before the prefrontal cortex can learn how to control them," Noelle said. "Our computer simulation results show the simulated prefrontal cortex maturing only after other interacting brain systems mature."
The findings by Vanderbilt University computational neuroscientist David Noelle and his colleagues were published in the May 17, 2005, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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