Introduction to the Neuroscience of Social Learning and Child Development

By Hugh Brent Solvason, Ph.D., M.D.

This section is intended to bring the discussion from the level of what we see and know about our children (phenotype) to what the brain is doing (endophenotype), and how the brain may dysfunction.

Our overall intent is to provide help and guidance for individuals to navigate social learning where the process has gone awry. We see the evidence of where it has gone awry (biting, screaming, ‘melt downs’ etc.), and become very aware over time that the usual communication (verbally explaining and instructing) is not having the expected result.

Where we may err, is in how we understand why this process is awry. In our thoughts we develop a model we then use to explain why the individual is struggling. How much do we trust our model of what is wrong? For the most part, when individuals have difficulty with out of control behavior at home, at work, at school and with peers, it can all seem confusing and insurmountable. It is hard not to see difficult behavior as both volitional, and sometimes mean spirited. We become so tangled in the forest, we can lose sight of the trees. Our feelings about what is happening as we try to confront the reality that whatever behavior isn’t working is not going to go away, colors how we think, and it is easy to become lost. Cause and effect become a confusing loop.

Every attempt to ‘step back’ and try another approach continues to be influenced by our emotional experience, and the interaction becomes filled with tension and anxiety for both people. Out of the frustration of failed communication and lack of relief from the upset that comes from an individual that is emotionally unsettled, there forms budding beliefs that reflect the anxiety about the future.

To complicate it, within the family a struggling individual creates conflicts between others; if no one knows what to do, each person’s belief in what is causing the problem, what kind of treatment is needed, and how to correct the challenge, has a tendency to polarize individuals. This additional dynamic creates more anxiety, conflicting messages, and loss of intimacy that will inevitably cascade down to how the individuals experience ‘the family’.

We present our approach with this in mind, and when thinking about the neuroscience we will think about the topic broadly enough to include in our understanding how anxiety and tension also affects the brain.

The intent of the material presented here is not to say anything at all specific about any one individual, and as a result should not be used to support or refute anyone’s impression about why a specific child is having problems, or what to do about it. The hope is that a simplified summary of neuroscience research will help people understand our approach, and why it makes sense. Our clinical outcomes have validated the clinical approach to the extent that we feel confident and excited about what we are doing, and hence why we are making this material more widely available. However, there is no one to one correlation with anything from the neuroscience literature to our’s or anyone else’s suggestion for interactions or behavioral interventions when usual communication approaches fail.

What we have found is that for clinical intervention, it is not so relevant ‘why’ a behavior is generated. The approach we use is the same with a given problematic behavior regardless of the ‘cause’ unless there is a specific medical cause that needs to be treated first.

The beliefs that evolve can become skewed because of their worry, feeling of incompetence, and anger over what can looks like reactional behavior. We present below selected findings from published neuroscience research to help clarify how a ‘non-verbal’ approach to engaging and teaching an individual makes sense and is consistent with what is known about social learning.

Please use what we are saying to share our understanding of the basic brain mechanisms of social learning. It worth recalling that social behavior evolved in homo sapiens over 120 thousand years before language as we know it now came into use. That’s a very long time raising fully human children without being able to tell a child what to do, and without telling a child what the consequences of ongoing poor behavior will be. In short, the use of language to shape a growing child’s behavior is a relatively new way to raise children. But like all systems that are newly added, it prone to failure. In fact, trying to tell a child (or anyone else for that matter) who is out of control what to do seems to be of little use as their ability to use language to understand intention and to shape behavior goes offline. There is such complexity around this issue that everything we say at some level needs to be qualified by the limitations of research and ongoing dispute around core issues of the neuroscience of child development.

The ‘non-verbal’ approach engages attention, observation, and problem solving with an individual in a way that runs on gestures and body/facial expression. It is not focused on behavior or consequence. Our use of ‘non-verbal’ is short hand for the processes developed in ancient human and social primate societies for growing social beings. Overtime these processes have become essential to the development of a social being. How important ancient non-verbal communication and social understanding is emphasized by the simple observation that it develops early in infancy, well before a child begins learns to use language. It’s a way to communicate, imitate, and become a part of a social group that is fundamental to who we are.

Social behaviors are not taught like math or science. If an individual isn’t learning a topic, increased intensity, repetition and ‘discipline’ can often help to at least improve the individual’s knowledge base. However, increasing the intensity usually does not lead to better emotional regulation or desired behaviors. There is one pivotal cultural belief that hampers our communication: it is the belief that if you tell someone what to do, and what the consequences will be, they will hear it, ‘learn’ it and do it. For some people, this works pretty well, or at least well enough. But when this approach has failed, the next thing we do, in fact firmly believe is necessary to do, is more talking. Consequences to undesirable behavior are more clearly (verbally) explained, and enforced without regard to protest or out of control behavior.

Yet persisting with a failed strategy of talking, can create problems, some of which are worse than the original problem. Using ancient and reliable communication, we can help an individual learn to be a person, who is liked and enjoys integrated social relationships. Children progress from relatively helpless, observant newborns to walking, talking, empathetic people who perform everyday experiments on cause and effect. That this process can go wrong is obvious enough. When behaviors seem inappropriate and unhelpful, it might be extrapolated that what they think they have seen and learned is not what we thought we had been teaching.

Why is this? To better understand why individuals struggle with social interaction, it is necessary to realize how these skills develop in infants. With this knowledge, we can modify our own communication for more productive outcomes.

Developmentally speaking there are a few key skills necessary for a child to successfully manage the process of growing up. Imitation, shared attention, and what can be called empathic understanding (which can be included under “Theory of Mind”, e.g. what others feel, and think, and are likely to do). As noted earlier we focus on developing these skills or processes, as a way to teach effective and rewarding behaviors.

Learning is social. Social cues tell us what to pay attention to and how to behave. Because imitation is essentially ‘hard-wired’, it is why infants pay attention to and find reward in doing what others around them are doing. This is not information rich in quantitative data, and not dependent on descriptive language. It is made possible because there are areas and connected networks in the brain that support social learning, e.g. they tie perception to action. What we have found useful, is that social learning and imitation share the same neural networks, or neuro-circuits with sensorimotor experience, making gestures, touch, and other physical experiences a key path to help learn social behaviors.

Non didactic, non-verbally based teaching is socially rich; it is based on a form of mentoring, apprenticeship, and participation, all of which are dependent on shared attention, positive and a positive emotional tone that facilitates learning. This is rewarding and then reflected in an individual’s sense of who they are, and a feeling of social competence. This is reflected in our approach which make shared attention and neutral/positive emotional tone key to reinforcing appropriate social behavior, and beginning the mentorship process.

How much do very young children know or infer about what adults feel? One year olds were blindfolded and as expected found that it was impossible to see. When an adult was also blindfolded, infants who had been blindfolded before acted toward the parent as if parent could not see, those infants who were not previously blindfolded did not. Other studies have shown that toddlers that have yet to begin to speak show altruistic or helping behavior and other basic forms of empathy.

Research has shown that imitation in pre-verbal infants creates a map of the psychological state of self and other, e.g. it creates a useable set of rules that link what they see and how they behave. It is key to emotional regulation as emotional states and responses seen in adults are also mirrored, internalized, and generalized to the emotional states of other people.
They prefer to look at people and pay attention to those who matched their actions versus those who mismatched them and show more positive emotion towards the matching adult, and seem to find imitation in this context more rewarding. Infants unconsciously copy the postures, expressions and mannerisms of adults around them; not surprisingly so do we as adults. What’s more, young infants monitor their imitative behavior, suggesting some form of ‘response guidance’, (or perhaps reaching a bit – conscious control) that is sensitive to when something is not done quite correctly.

A child who is 4 years old but behaving in a way more consistent with a 2 year olds understanding of the world, may be arrested in integrating all the needed social information to develop, yet the basic processes such as imitation, understanding what is happening in someone else, testing and evaluating cause and effect continue. It is probably good to re-state that correcting a 4 year olds behavior by talking to them or ‘setting limits’ when their behavior clearly indicates that a significant portion of their brain is completely run by pre-linguistic programs, is not going to work.

Sensory-motor processing and poor social learning may be linked. The circuits used to internalize, build and test social rules understanding, and sensorimotor activity also help provide feedback in imitating behavior. This also implies that children with sensory-motor integration problems will benefit from an approach that integrates sensory-motor skills training along with learning about social context and emotional regulation. Some have suggested that it is possible to engage attentional neural networks by stimulating sensorimotor processing, making it easier to be a social learner.

Some children with behavioral difficulties have difficulty with sensory input, but also have basic problems with where their hand is, or how to move their leg in a directed way; they are only barely aware of their physical body. It turns out that infants imitate by identifying their body parts, and recognizing these body parts on another person. This very physical correlation is another building block in creating the sense of self and other.

The next section will follow up on this discussion. It will cover what kinds of abnormalities of brain structure or function can make imitation, shared attention, and the ability to understand others (Theory of Mind) fail.
If you want to read some of the research on imitation and social learning, these two articles by the same group of researchers are interesting. There will be many more references with the next and additional sections.

Meltzoff. Foundations for a New Science of Learning. 2009; 325:284-288.

Marshall. Neural mirroring mechanisms and imitation in human infants. Published 28 April 2014.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0620