At the University of Oregon’s Brain Development Laboratory, we study attention in children as young as 3 by measuring the brain’s response to sounds as we ask children to shift their “spotlight” of attention from one side to the other. Shifting this spotlight of attention markedly changes the brain’s response to events in the environment – the brain produces a response to an attended stimulus that is twice as large as the response when it is unattended, and this boost occurs within 1/10 of a second! The ability to focus attention is critical in lifelong learning. We have shown that this enhanced brain response is not present in some young children who are at-risk for academic problems.
Unlike some other animals, the brain of a human infant is very immature and isn’t fully adult-like until 25 years after birth. This long period of development means there is a lot of time for children’s experiences to shape their brains, and this is exactly what research has found: In fact, we now know that the architecture of the brain is dependent on the experiences children have. This is called “neuroplasticity,” which refers to how “plastic” or changeable by experience the brain is.