Real-world neuroscience and the interplay of typical vs. atypical experience
The last decades have highlighted the role of both sensory and top-down influences (e.g., memory, goals) in adult attention. This research enabled us the study of how learning and object perception occur in real-world environments, where tasks typically differ in their difficulty, information stimulates multiple senses at once, and also where individuals differ in their ability to select task-relevant information (selective attention). Are these models, derived primarily from unisensory and/or adult research, sufficient to explain the challenges of processing (selecting) information in naturalistic, multi-sensory environments and its interactions with experience? In this talk, I will first present behavioural results revealing how we allocate attention towards highly versus less familiar objects in multisensory settings. The results suggest an initial positive influence of the most familiar representational format of object stimuli (in numeracy: number words) on developing selective attention; these benefits turn into cost with increased expertise. Together, our results highlight the importance of probing developing selective attention mechanisms in settings that emulate both the multisensory nature as well as the variabilities of real-world environments.
Next, I will discuss two sets of findings revealing the role of atypical experience in shaping brain and cognitive development and the added value of the analysis of EEG within an electrical neuroimaging framework. In prematurely born infants in the NICUs, supportive experiences (e.g., breastfeeding, skin-to-skin care) are associated with stronger brain responses, whereas painful experiences (e.g., skin punctures, tube insertions) are associated with reduced brain responses to the same, controlled light-touch stimuli – even when controlling for prematurity and analgesics. Next, I will discuss results demonstrating mechanisms underlying effectiveness of intensive constraint-based therapy in recovering motor functions in the more affected upper extremity in cerebral palsy, a common movement disorder. Specifically, one week of non-removable rigid cast forced the brain areas governing the more affected hand to start responding to controlled touch stimuli by activating configurations of brain areas similar to those activated by the hemisphere controlling the less affected hand. Together, these findings underline the positive influences of both typical and atypical experiences in shaping and re-shaping brain and sensory development.