Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Having a brain scan changed how these children think about minds and brains

The link between the mind and brain is tricky enough for expert psychologists and neuroscientists to grapple with, let alone young children. Nonetheless, they grow up with their own naive understanding. For example, there's some cute research from the 90s that found, somewhere between age 7 and 9, most children come to see the brain as containing thoughts and memories – they'll say that a skunk with a brain transplant from a rabbit will have memories of being a rabbit. Younger kids, by contrast, recognise the brain is involved in mental activity, but not that it contains thoughts and memories (they think the skunk with a rabbit brain will still have memories of being a skunk).

Now researchers in France have explored how taking part in a neuroimaging experiment influences young children's understanding of the mind-brain link. Their results, published recently in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, suggested that the experience led the children to have a more sophisticated, brain-based understanding of at least some mental functions.

Sandrine Rossi and her colleagues recruited 37 eight-year-olds who two years previously had taken part in a brain scan study. For this, they'd completed some numerical tasks in the scanner and they were also shown images of their brain. Thirty-seven eight-year-olds with no brain-scan experience acted as controls. Both groups of kids were from similar middle-class backgrounds.

To test their understanding of the mind-brain link, the children were introduced to a cartoon character, Julie, and asked to select which parts of her body (hand, eye, mind, mouth, brain or heart) she needed to perform various functions: seeing, talking, reading, counting, dreaming and imagining.

The main differences between the groups occurred when judging what Julie needed to dream and imagine. Here, a majority (nearly 70 per cent) of the children who'd undertaken a brain scan said she'd need both her mind and her brain, compared with around 40 per cent of the controls. The control kids were more likely to say she'd need her mind, without also mentioning she'd need her brain. In other words, the children with brain scan experience appeared to see the mind and brain as more closely linked, at least for dreaming and imagining. Furthermore, when judging what Julie would need to see and talk, the controls more often neglected to mention either her brain or mind, compared with the brain scan kids. In contrast, the groups didn't differ in how often they chose the mouth, hand, heart and eye for the different functions.

This research was inspired by parents' reports that their children had become more brain aware after undertaking a brain scan. Now there is some data to support their anecdotes. "The present study is the first to show an educational effect of participating in an MRI protocol on children's naive mind-brain conceptions," the researchers said.


Rossi, S., Lanoë, C., Poirel, N., Pineau, A., Houdé, O., & Lubin, A. (2015). When I Met my brain: Participating in a neuroimaging study influences children’s naïve mind–brain conceptions Trends in Neuroscience and Education DOI: 10.1016/j.tine.2015.07.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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