UEL Baby Dev Lab

The origins of effortful control: How early development within arousal/regulatory systems influences attentional and affective control

Wass, S. 2021. Academic Press

In this review, I consider the developmental interactions between two domains sometimes characterised as at opposite ends of the human spectrum: early-developing arousal/regulatory domains, that subserve basic mechanisms of survival and homeostasis; and the later-developing ‘higher-order’ cognitive domain of effortful control. First, I examine how short-term fluctuations within arousal/regulatory systems associate with fluctuations in effortful control during early childhood. I present evidence suggesting that both hyper- and hypo-arousal are associated with immediate reductions in attentional and affective control; but that hyper-aroused individuals can show cognitive strengths (faster learning speeds) as well as weaknesses (reduced attentional control). I also present evidence that, in infancy, both hyper- and hypo-aroused states may be dynamically amplified through interactions with the child’s social and physical environment. Second, I examine long-term interactions between arousal/regulatory systems and effortful control. I present evidence that atypical early arousal/regulatory development predicts poorer attentional and affective control during later development. And I consider moderating influences of the environment, such that elevated early arousal/regulatory system reactivity may confer both cognitive advantages in a supportive environment, and disadvantages in an unsupportive one. Finally, I discuss how future research can further our understanding of these close associations between attentional and affective domains during early development.