The Tragic Optimist

Experimenting on Zoe

I love science.  My job involves searching for the published record of scientific studies, but much as I’d love to, I don’t get to participate in any actual sciencing much anymore.  Today, though, Zoe got to be the one helping science get done.

The University of Minnesota has an Institute of Child Development which (unsurprisingly, based on the name) runs studies on how children develop.  What’s cool is that the researchers are students, and the research subjects are kids living nearby.  When Zoe was first born, we signed up as being willing to have her in some studies, but we’d never been called in until this week.  One of the labs is looking at cognitive flexibility in young children.  The full name of the study is “Executive Function Training in the Preschool Years,” which sounds a lot like sending your 3 year old to business school for an MBA, but really, they want to know if children could be trained to switch gears cognitively.  They did this by having her play a computer game where one of two shapes might show up.  She was the press the button that matched the shape.  Then they switched the rules of the game on her and asked her to press the button based on the color not the shape.  We came in first on Wednesday, and she played the games, and then one of the researchers practiced switching between the two games with her.  Today we came back in, and she played the games again, to see if she’d learned to switch more easily between the games.  Then they also had her take part in a vocabulary test.

Oh, and the whole time, she was wearing an EEG head net to measure her brain waves.  It was very science fiction.  In fact, the researchers tell the kids that the head net is an astronaut helmet.  And they had her watch a little clip about a spaceship and space robots at the beginning of each session, I think to get things calibrated, particularly in terms of recording where she’s looking (they had her blink 5 times, had her look at one specific spot for a long time, and then had her close her eyes).  She couldn’t wear her glasses while in the head net, though, which was a little annoying.  Luckily, she was able to see the screen without them, and the pictures were simple enough that it wasn’t too bad.  Still, makes me wonder if  what would have happened if she hadn’t been able to see the screen.

Zoe in EEG head net

Zoe all hooked up to the EEG and ready to go

It was fascinating to watch her in all of this.  She complained in the beginning that the EEG net was “a little tickly” but otherwise, she was happy to go along with the game.  Because of how the room was set up, I couldn’t actually see whether she was hitting the right buttons, so I don’t know how she did.  But they did say they’d send a newsletter out with the findings once they had collected all the data.

getting hooked up to the EEG head net

Zoe said this part was "a little tickly"

In the pictures, she doesn’t look like she’s having a great time, but besides getting to spend the morning with new people who were happy to play new games with her, Zoe got stickers for learning the games, M&Ms for completing the games, and a t-shirt and a puzzle from the institute at the end of the whole thing.  She’s pretty convinced that it was the best thing ever.  I would highly recommend getting in the participant pool if you’re in the area.

In a bit of a strange coincidence, Cribsheet (a parenting blog for our local paper) had a post about another study at the same institute looking at how babies develop the ability to perceive 3 dimensions from cues other than motion and binocular vision (using shading and perspective).  That’s a pretty fascinating read, too.



  1. geeksinrome

    wow! I am so impressed with Zoe being so patient with that headgear, but that was pretty smart on the part of the students to show the film to get them in a space-mood!

    It will be neat to hear what they come up with!

  2. Those pictures are great! How interesting to participate in something like that.

  3. Wow. She is such a good sport, even if she did balk a teensy bit! Definitely a scientist’s kid.

  4. Great story, and nice find on the other research video! ICD (Institute of Child Development) at the U does some great work. Awesome!

  5. motherhoodandpotatoes

    It is great that Zoe didn’t fuss about the headgear. It would be interesting to see the data collected, I’m sure.

  6. Cherryl

    my goodness! zOE is really cute!

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