An important milestone in early childhood development is developing awareness and understanding of others. A four-year-old can develop the ability to understand that others see the world differently.
A new study has found that the maturation of a critical fiber connection is responsible for this leap in development. Between the ages of three and four, the fibers in the brain's arcuate fascicle structure develop. The arcuate fascicle connects two distinct regions in the brain, and the connection consequently enables a child to understand others.
These two regions in the brain enable people to understand the world external to themselves better. One region at the back of the temporal lobe enables us to think of others and what they think. Another region in the frontal lobe aids the understanding of abstract thought and of the “real world”. When the arcuate fascicle matures enough to connect these two regions, children can begin to consider the thoughts of others. The ability to understand others is a vital marker in early childhood development.
A three-year-old child will not be able to understand that others may not know what he knows. The researchers observed how well three-year-olds consider the feelings and thoughts of others through the lens of the children's own experiences.
In an experiment, the researchers showed a three-year-old a chocolate box containing pencils instead of chocolate. They then asked the three-year-old what another child would expect the box to contain. The three-year-old answered, “pencils”.
Of course, a child who does not know that the box does not contain chocolate would not expect to see pencils instead. Once the three-year-old turns four, however, he will understand that another child would expect to see chocolates inside the box.
Thus, a three-year-old does not yet understand that others may have thoughts different from his. He does not yet understand that his own thoughts and experiences do not define the world external to himself. Once he begins to understand, though, he reaches a breakthrough in early childhood development and the development of empathy.
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