Marshmallow Boy vs. The Pokemon Kid – The Neuroscience of Children’s Passions

If I could use subtitles on this blog, this one would read: Why the most famous study of child-distraction is itself a huge distraction.

But give me a minute to set this up.

Over at The Daily Beast today, I have an essay about how Pokemon changed my son’s brain. Or at least that’s how The Daily Beast is packaging the story. The real point of the article is that my son’s passion changed his brain. Passion, or motivation, is experienced by the brain as the spritz of dopamine. Dopamine increases neural signaling speed – the brains performs better and learns better. Think of dopamine as the turbocharger for learning. You want dopamine on your child’s brain. You want your child motivated.

In my son’s case, because he was in love with Pokemon, he used the cards to learn math and reading. And because he loved Pokemon, he did a lot of math and reading, which made him very good at both. Prior to his love of Pokemon, he was entirely unexceptional at either.

Now I want to talk about how passion/motivation and dopamine affect a child’s ability to concentrate. Attention networks and cognitive networks are distinct in the brain, but successful learning really requires both: a child can’t just be smart, she has to concentrate too.

The attention systems add up to what the scientists these days call Executive Function: the ability to direct your thoughts and actions toward a goal.

If you’ve spent any time around kids in elementary school, one thing is incredibly self-evident. Kids who are motivated are massively better at organizing their thoughts and actions than kids who aren’t motivated. When kids really want to do well on a math test, or they want to win a soccer game, or they want to put on a great school play, they’re simply amazing to watch. First, they anticipate – they see what’s coming in advance. Second, they can shut out distraction. Third, they draw upon their cognitive resources instantly: they don’t forget, suddenly, how to solve that math problem, or what their lines are, or what direction they’re supposed to dribble.

By comparison, kids who aren’t really motivated seem to be merely reacting, rather than anticipating. They’re spacey. They remember how to do things, but usually after a visible delay.

My point is, when kids are dedicated to a goal, their attention systems are freakishly good. When they’re not motivated, their attention systems sputter. My guess is that dopamine has dramatic effects on the activity level of the attention networks.

I would love to see a scientific study of this in young children. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been done yet. The reason is that the social sciences have never been able to measure this kind of active, situational motivation/goal-orientation in younger kids. Nor do they have a way to induce this state in children. Every child is motivated by different things, different situations. We all know it when we see it, in everyday life, but it’s a black hole in the laboratory.

So instead, the social scientists have used measures of baseline motivation. These are, largely, a measure of a child’s desire to be good in school, and their desire to please, and their willingness to follow orders blindly. Here’s an example. Kids are handed a huge sheet of paper which is printed with tons of letters floating all over it. They’re told to circle as many D’s as they like, and they can stop any time. There are a lot of D’s among the letter scramble. Some kids grow tired of this quickly. There seems to be no point to the exercise, no valid goal to achieve, and they find it too easy. But other kids keep at it – they want to circle every D on the entire page. They like how easy it is (finding D’s is no challenge). They’re either puzzle-lovers or perfectionists. But to scholars, the number of minutes a child stays on this task is considered a valid measure of their motivation; the kids who last longer are considered to be more motivated.

Essentially, they’re trying to measure motivation using an amotivational paradigm – no kid comes into that experiment caring about finding all the D’s. It’s not a goal in anyone's life. The experiment is a poor proxy for what happens to a girl when she’s engaged in something that’s actually important to her.

So now, let’s talk about marshmallows.

Last summer, Jonah Lehrer wrote a nice New Yorker article about Dr. Walter Mischel’s marshmallow research. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mischel put over 600 kids who were 4 and 5 years old in a blank room by themselves. On the table was one marshmallow and a bell. The kids were told that the experimenter would be back in a bit, and if they could wait until the experiment returned, they would get a second marshmallow and could eat both. If they couldn’t wait that long, they could ring the bell and go ahead and eat the one marshmallow. The experimenter didn’t say how long she’d be gone – and she didn’t return for at least fifteen minutes.

About a third of the kids waited out the entire time, eager to get the second marshmallow. The others waited only a few minutes, and some didn’t wait at all – they just ate the first marshmallow, without even ringing the bell. They couldn’t resist the temptation.

In the 1980s, Mischel was able to track down 125 of the kids, who were now in college. He asked them for their SAT scores. 95 of the subjects responded. And here was the remarkable statistic, the money line, which has wowed scholars and lay people ever since: the kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had, on average, SAT scores 210 points higher than the kids who ate the first marshmallow in under 30 seconds.

The New Yorker article repopularized Mischel’s work, and it’s been the talk of parenting circles ever since. Every parent who read the article was thinking, “Would my daughter be able to wait? Or would she go for the first marshmallow?” We've heard of many parents who tried to do the experiment at home on their child. I’ve also seen several scholars present the Mischel study to lay audiences, because it always makes parents swoon.

But I don’t hold the study in such awe, and we didn’t report it in NurtureShock because we think it’s a distraction.

One problem is simply that the study didn’t replicate well. The theory behind the SAT success of Mischel’s kids is that they had excellent Executive Function – those who could wait the fifteen minutes had superior attention systems. In one attempt at reproducing the study, published in 2006, Mischel and some eminent neuroscientists did the test with 4 and 5 year kids, using cookies rather than marshmallows. Fourteen years later, they tested the children’s Executive Function skills. There was no correlation between delay time (how long they waited for the second cookie) and their EF scores, undermining the theory. Nor was there any correlation - none at all - between wait time and their IQ scores at age 18

My guess is that Mischel’s kids who could wait fifteen minutes are the same kids who can circle all the D’s. It wasn’t Executive Function driving their success – it might have been simply their desire to please and do well, at anything. If you think twice about Mischel’s paradigm, and about the kids who waited fifteen minutes, the following descriptions would apply:

-    good at distracting themselves from the thing they wanted (the marshmallow)
-    eager to please the grownup
-    externally reward-oriented (obsessed with winning the second marshmallow)
-    good at suppressing their desire
-    able to hang in there during a very boring time when there’s nothing to do

I was talking about Mischel’s data with Dr. David Shernoff. Shernoff has been working with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to study children’s motivational states during their school environment. Shernoff felt that Mischel’s data is an indictment of the educational system. The kids who can do well in school are the kids who can do well waiting for marshmallows – they can sit still and wait it out through long periods of disengagement. That’s not the kind of kids we should be cultivating.

Yes, kids are motivated by marshmallows and cookies. But that’s not the kind of motivation we should be focused on. That’s not the kind of motivation that fires up their attention systems and makes them operate at peak levels. Fundamentally, the Mischel paradigm measures and tests kids at a moment engineered so there is nothing to care about in life but marshmallows and pleasing the experimenter. It tests them, essentially, when they are at the absolute bottom of their operational abilities. It tests them when they are bored – not when they are stimulated.

In that sense, the marshmallow paradigm is a big distraction. Parents shouldn't fixate on how long their kid can resist marshmallows. They should think more about developing their children's true interests, the things that make their hearts sing.

Join the Discussion