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Research

(NOTE: This page is aimed at academics. On my early years page I also have links to three recent practitioner-facing podcasts about this, and I’ve put some parent-facing bits and bobs here…)

Natural behaviour is the language of the brain. For my research I study cognitive and brain functions embedded in real-world settings.

Selected papers:

Wass, S. V., & Goupil, L. (2022). Studying the developing brain in real-world contexts: moving from castles in the air to castles on the ground. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 77.

Stress and attention

My particular interest is understanding the developmental interactions between two domains sometimes characterised as at opposite ends of the human spectrum: early-developing arousal systems, that subserve basic mechanisms of survival and homeostasis; and the later-developing ‘higher-order’ cognitive domain of executive control.

Because I am interested in studying behaviours and brain mechanisms within real-world naturalistic settings, I don’t take the approach that most people do – of designing an experimental task that aims to simulate the mental function that I am interested in, and studying brain function while my participants perform that experiment in the lab. Instead, I am faced with a problem which (to my mind anyway!) is WAY harder – which is that of studying how the development of executive control influences our moment-by-moment interactions with a real-world environment.

As part of this I study how moment-by-moment fluctuations in a child’s physiological stress affect their ability to exercise executive control. But I also study the problem from the opposite perspective – looking at how we use executive control to change our behaviours ‘on the fly’, moment by moment, to compensate for dynamical changes both within us, and in our environments, and maintain stable levels of physiological stress. I am also interested in studying how these behaviours ‘go wrong’, leading to ‘metastatic’, dysregulatory interactions.

Attention

How do babies and children pay attention in a complex, real-world environments? What determines when they shift their attention, and where they shift their attention to? At the moment I am trying to look at this by studying multi-scale dynamics – looking at interactions between slow-scale fluctuations in arousal/alertness and faster time-scale fluctuations in brain activity, and how these are both influenced by dynamic properties of our environment.

TALK TO COME: Periodicities and inertia (5 mins)

Selected papers:

Wass, S. (preprint). Oscillators and inertial dynamics: understanding the development of real-world attention control.

Children pay attention to things very differently when they are doing things together with an adult, and children who spend more time in joint child-adult attention during early development are better at paying attention on their own later on. But how, and why, do these short- and long-term influences happen? To understand this I study the microdynamics of how shared attention states are established and maintained.

TALK TO COME: Why scaffolding is a bad metaphor: what observing the microdynamics of dual adult-child play using EEG can tell us about how shared concentration develops between children and adults.

I also use dual EEG and fNIRS to look at synchrony during child-caregiver interactions:

Selected papers:

Phillips, E., Goupil, L., Haresign, I. M., Bruce-Gardyne, E., Csolsim, F. A., Whitehorn, M., … & Wass, S. (2021). Proactive or reactive? Neural oscillatory insight into the leader-follower dynamics of early infant-caregiver interaction.

Wass, S.V., Whitehorn, M., Marriot Haresign, I., Phillips, E., Leong, V. (2020) Interpersonal neural entrainment during early social interaction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.01.006

Wass, S.V., Noreika, V., Georgieva, S., Clackson, K., Brightman, L., Nutbrown, R., Santamaria, L., Leong, V. (2018) Parental neural responsivity to infants’ visual attention: how mature brains scaffold immature brains during social interaction. PLoS Biology. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2006328

Leong, V., Byrne, E., Clackson, K., Lam, S. & Wass, S.V. (2017). Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. 114 (50), 13290–13295, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1702493114. 

For my PhD I also designed concentration training games for babies, which over the years I have developed and tested with many wonderful collaborators around the world. I don’t do so much of that work now – here’s why:

TALK TO COME: Why cognitive training doesn’t work (5 mins)

Selected papers:

Wass, S., Porayska-Pomsta, K., & Johnson, M. H. (2011). Training attentional control in infancy. Current Biology21(18), 1543-1547.

Stress

How do children learn to self-regulate in real-world settings by learning to adapt their behaviours, moment by moment, to maintain stable stress levels in the face of a changing environment? And how can these processes go wrong – leading to ‘metastatic’, dysregulatory interactions? To do this we look at which stress states are the most stable – i.e. the most long-lasting – in real-world settings. And we try to figure out why some states are more stable than others.

Selected papers:

Wass, S. (2022). Allostasis and metastasis: the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology 

Wass, S.V. (2022) The origins of effortful control: how early development within arousal/regulatory systems influences cognitive and affective control. Developmental Review.

Through development we transition from co-regulation – where stress states are shared across the child-parent dyad – towards self-regulation – where stress states are managed by children on their own. But is co-regulation just about the adult setting a positive example of how to stay calm, and the child copying that – or is it more complicated? And what types of parental behaviours are likely to associate with best long-term development of self-regulation skills?

Selected papers:

Wass., S.V., Smith, C.G., Clackson, K., Gibb, C., Eitzenberger, J., Mirza, F. U. (2019). Parents mimic and influence their infant’s autonomic state through dynamic affective state matching. Current Biology 29(14), 2415-2422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.016

We know that stress states spread across parent-child dyads – known as stress contagion. But how does this happen? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or somewhere in between? And how, specifically, do a child’s developing vocal behaviours trigger stress contagion – for good and for bad…

Selected papers:

Wass, S. V., Phillips, E., Smith, C., & Goupil, L. (2021). Vocalisations and the dynamics of interpersonal arousal coupling in caregiver-infant dyads. PsyArXiv. July6.

Environment

‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ Second by second, day by day, and year by year, we are constantly adapting and evolving around the environments in which we spend live. I use wearable sensors (microphones, cameras) to record the different types of environment in which children spend time, and to measure the influences that these environments have on long-term development.

Selected papers:

Wass, S.V., Smith, C.G., Daubney, K.R., Suata, Z.M., Clackson, K., Begum, A., Mirza, F.U. (2019) Influences of household noise on autonomic function in 12-month-old infants: understanding early common pathways to atypical emotion regulation and cognitive performance. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 60(12):1323-1333 doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13084.