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A study by Andrew Melztoff and ILABS, featured in this UW News story, proposes association between anticipation of touch and executive function in children

Attention, please! Anticipation of touch takes focus, executive skills

UW News

Anticipation is often viewed as an emotional experience, an eager wait for something to happen.

Inside the brain, the act of anticipating is an exercise in focus, a neural preparation that conveys important visual, auditory or tactile information about what’s to come.

Now, brain research among 6- to 8-year-old children from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and Temple University shows not only this expectation in real time, but also how anticipation relates to executive function skills.

A study published in the November issue of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience specifically examines what happens in children’s brains when they anticipate a touch to the hand, and relates this brain activity to the executive functions the child demonstrates on other mental tasks. The ability to anticipate, researchers found, also indicates an ability to focus.

“Anticipation is what keeps us from being shocked and surprised by the world,” said Andrew Meltzoff , UW professor of psychology and co-director of I-LABS. “When you pick up a pencil or fork, when someone rolls a ball to you, or when someone approaches you and extends their hand to shake it, you’re anticipating a tactile impact.

“We cannot just respond when something has happened; we need to anticipate what will happen. In the real world, we don’t just live in the present; we live partly in the future.”

While other research has examined how children and adults anticipate something they will see, no research has been done on children’s expectation of touch, or the role of touch in measuring children’s executive function skills, said Staci Weiss, a doctoral student at Temple and the corresponding author of the study. Other studies, too, have shown that children’s executive function skills at around age 6 correlate with children’s academic performance.

“Executive function” is a broad term that encompasses various skills necessary for organizing information and controlling one’s own behavior. Selective attention — the ability to focus on a specific thought or task at the expense of others — is an executive function skill related directly to anticipation, because it involves knowing what to expect of an event, however small, and how to respond to it.

“Anticipatory brain activity prepares for the future, making incoming information a little more predictable so it’s easier to focus attention on what is important. The neural anticipation of touch had not been captured in children,” Weiss said. “What’s exciting is that children’s ability to anticipate an upcoming event — in this case, a touch to the hand — was related to how well they could control their attention. The amount of change in children’s brain response during anticipation of touch was associated with cognitive skills more broadly, not just in the tactile domain, but in broader ways that might be useful for children in the classroom.”

Read the entire article here .