Minerva Fast Track Group Milestones of Early Cognitive Development



Cognitive Milestones in Early Childhood

In the first years of life, children develop remarkable cognitive abilities. Between 2 and 4 years of age, they start outperforming other species in nearly all higher-order cognitive domains. They develop sophisticated reasoning abilities that allow them to extract and generalize abstract rules from patterns in their environment, they learn to plan and perform complicated actions with intermediate steps, and acquire a complex symbolic communication system, our human language. These early cognitive achievements are particularly prominent in the social domain. By the age of 4 years, children have developed a multifaceted concept of themselves and others and are capable of reasoning about abstract, invisible concepts, such as the content of other people’s or their own mind. This ability, referred to as Theory of Mind, allows us to make predictions about how other people will act, understand irony, and develop concepts such as morality. As such, Theory of Mind constitutes a hallmark of human social cognition.

Our Research Questions

Our research group investigates the cognitive and neural developments that drive the achievement of these milestones of human cognition in early childhood. When and how do children start understanding the social and physical world in terms of abstract concepts, complex rules and structures? What is the role of brain maturation for the emergence of these concepts? A central focus of our group lies on the development of Theory of Mind and a mature concept of the self. Do these concepts rely on language or are they already present in preverbal infants? And is their emergence domain-specific or is it supported by developments in other cognitive domains (such as, Language, working memory, or executive function)?

Our Research Methods

We address these questions with behavioral and neurocognitive methods in early childhood, including eye-tracking, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), electro-encephalography (EEG), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With the combination of these techniques we aim to identify the developmental onset, cognitive structure, and supporting brain structures of typically human cognition and social behavior.

Key publications

Grosse Wiesmann, C.; Schreiber, J.; Singer, T.; Steinbeis, N.; Friederici, A. D.: White matter maturation is associated with the emergence of Theory of Mind in early childhood. Nature Communications 8, 14692 (2017)
Grosse Wiesmann, C.; Friederici, A. D.; Singer, T.; Steinbeis, N.: Implicit and explicit false belief development in preschool children. Developmental Science 20 (5), e12445 (2017)
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