Research News Fluctuations in cognitive performance differ between children and vary by domain

11 June 2024

Researchers from the Lifespan Cognitive Dynamics lab at the Radboudumc / Donders Institute have discovered that studying cognitive fluctuations can provide unique insight into how our minds work. In the study, over two thousand children performed eleven different cognitive tasks. The researchers examined not only the children’s average performance, but also their fluctuations, namely: the ups and downs in performance across trials and sessions, captured using mathematical modeling.

Nicholas Judd, the first author of the paper, explains: ‘These findings are very exciting. First, we found that some children were far more variable than others – that’s important to know, especially in classroom settings, where big decisions can depend on ‘snapshots’ of performance. Moreover, we suspect that cognitive fluctuations early in life may play a key role in development. Second, we discovered that children who showed greater fluctuations in one task were not necessarily the ones who showed a lot of fluctuations in other tasks. This indicates that different mechanisms underlie fluctuations depending on the specific task that children are performing.”

The research group, led by Rogier Kievit, published their findings in the Journal of Cognition. Kievit explains: ‘This new finding is part of an emerging field focusing on cognitive variability. Variability turns out to be extremely fascinating – It changes profoundly from childhood to old age, and also as we gain skills and expertise. Moreover, variability matters a lot in real life – For some activities and jobs, such as doctors or pilots, it is crucial that performance is very stable and predictable. For other types of jobs, such as artists or athletes, perhaps it is only the peaks that matter. Our research group aims to unravel the neural and behavioural mechanisms underlying these ups and downs”.

Read the publication here.


Picture: left Nicholas Judd, right Rogier Kievit

Related news items