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   from the issue of February 22, 2007

Study digs for new information on childrens' memories


A group of 3-year-olds are digging their weekly visits to UNL.

RESEARCH PLAYERS - Members of the team exploring the spatial memory of children include (from left) Margaret Ortmann, doctoral student in...
RESEARCH PLAYERS - Members of the team exploring the spatial memory of children include (from left) Margaret Ortmann, doctoral student in developmental psychology; Jeremy Kellas, senior psychology major; and Anne Schutte, assistant professor of psychology. Photo by Sara Pipher/University Communications.

Their play - digging into sandboxes and playing video games - is part of a Department of Psychology research project probing a more nuanced understanding of the development of spatial memory. The research could lead to a better understanding of why some children have problems with this type of memory, including children with attention deficit and hyper-activity disorder, autism and nonverbal learning disabilities.

The experiment tracks a child's ability to recall positions of certain items.

Utilizing a five-foot-long sandbox, a researcher buries a toy as a child watches. After a set amount of time, the child has to point to the spot where he remembers seeing the toy. In the video game experiment, children recall the location of a spaceship on a monitor.

"Research has found that children and adults are very systematic in the errors that they make," said Anne Schutte, professor of psychology. "Young children - 2- to 3-year-olds - are biased toward center of a space, such as the sandbox or monitor. Older children and adults are biased away from the center, toward the edges. That transition in bias occurs between 3 and 5 years of age. Up until now, our research has focused on identifying when that transition occurs."

Schutte's current research, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, assesses the role that experience plays in the development of this bias. Researchers are observing groups of child participants for 10 weeks. After an initial round of tests, researchers expose the children to similar tasks, building up specific experiences of spatial memory. Kids play the games repeatedly, allowing researchers to examine how the transition in bias is affected by experience.

"There are a lot of children out there who have difficulty with spatial memory. These children also often show deficits in school, with mathematics for example," Schutte said. "Ultimately, we want to look at kids with ADHD or autism, and examine the connection between attention and spatial memory. Our long-term goal is to figure out what is influencing the development of spatial memory systems, so that can we take that information and design a relevant intervention."



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