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Social brain active in childhood already

Exclusion elicits the same response in children as in adolescents and adults. That is what psychologist Mara van der Meulen found when she studied brain activity in primary schoolchildren. ‘What is new for us is that it is the same in childhood as later in life.’ Doctoral defence on 10 December.

How does a child respond to being excluded, or to seeing the same happen to someone else? In a similar way to an adult, according to research conducted by developmental psychologist Mara van der Meulen. The same network of brain regions is activated for both prosocial behaviour and social exclusion. ‘That is remarkable,’ Van der Meulen explains, ‘because until now we didn’t have a clear picture of how this works in the brains of seven- and eight-year-olds, despite the phenomenon already having been identified in adults and adolescents.’

Computer ball game

For her research, Van der Meulen performed an MRI scan on the children while they played a ball game on a computer with three other players who were controlled by the computer. When some of the virtual players only threw the ball to each other, the participants later reported feeling excluded, even though they knew the players weren’t real. Some children also decided to throw the ball to another player who hadn’t been involved much: a form of prosocial behaviour. In situations of social exclusion and prosocial behaviour, a network of brain regions is activated that processes emotions and governs the adoption of another person’s perspective.

Unique twin study

Van der Meulen’s PhD research forms part of a six-year study of twins. This gave her the opportunity to investigate the influence of both genetics and environment. ‘If identical twins’ behaviour is more similar than that of fraternal twins, it can mean there’s a genetic factor. If the scores for both kinds of twins are close together, the behaviour may arise from environmental factors such as upbringing.’

Environmental influences

Contrary to what might have been expected, identical twins had very little in common when it came to prosocial behaviour during the ball game. This means that neither genes nor environmental factors play a significant role, but that behaviour is determined by the unique environment in which one child gains experiences while another does not. In the real world, that environment could be something like a sports club. However, parents’ assessment of prosocial behaviour has shown that identical twins are more alike than fraternal twins, suggesting that genetic influences do play a role, although the influence of the unique environment is still important.

‘This fits into the theory that prosocial behaviour is very much determined by your situation,’ Van der Meulen explains. ‘Prosocial behaviour depends on the context, for example, whether other people are watching or whether your friends are doing the same thing you are. These are potential unique environmental influences that can elicit prosocial behaviour. If you can find out why or when some children are more susceptible to their environment, you can design a training programme. The possible implication of my research is that you can use those unique environmental influences to reinforce prosocial behaviour.

Popular

Van der Meulen is also keen to popularise and publicise her research. Together with her fellow doctoral candidate Michelle Achterberg, she appeared on the children’s television programme Topdoks and she blogs on the Leiden Psychology Blog. Alongside analysing her research findings, what Van der Meulen enjoys most is the contact with the children. ‘Seven- and eight-year-olds are so uninhibited: “Do you want to come to my house next time? Then you can see the guinea pig,” they say.’

Why do some children flourish while others don’t?

Van der Meulen was able to make an immediate start on her doctoral research within the larger framework of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Gravitation Programme for 2012. Her supervisor Eveline Crone is one of the four work package leaders in research into social competence and behaviour. Read more about the Consortium on Individual development

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