For the first time, researchers have identified how much 3 and 4-year-old children are grasping when they survey what's around them and to learn what areas of the brain are in play.
The study by psychologists at the University of Iowa looks at "visual working memory," a core cognitive function in which we stitch together what we see at any given point in time to help focus attention.
In a series of object-matching tests, the researchers found that 3-year-olds can hold a maximum of 1.3 objects in visual working memory, while 4-year-olds reach capacity at 1.8 objects.
By comparison, adults max out at 3 to 4 objects, according to prior studies.
"This is literally the first look into a 3 and 4-year-old's brain in action in this particular working memory task," John Spencer, psychology professor at the UI and corresponding author of the paper, said.
The research is important, because visual working memory performance has been linked to a variety of childhood disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, developmental coordination disorder as well as affecting children born prematurely.
The goal is to use the new brain imaging technique to detect these disorders before they manifest themselves in children's behavior later on.
The study is published in the journal NeuroImage.