UEL Baby Dev Lab

Allostasis and metastasis: the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation

Wass, S. 2021. PsyArXiv

Most research has studied self-regulation by presenting experimenter-controlled test stimuliand measuring change between a baseline period and the stimulus. But in the real world weare not passive recipients of discrete chunks of external stimulation, to which we in turnrespond; rather, the real world is continuous and we self-regulate by adaptively selectingwhich aspects of the social environment that we attend to from one moment to the next. Here,we contrast two dynamic processes that guide this process – the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of self-regulation. First, allostasis, through which we dynamically compensate for change tomaintain homeostasis. This involves upregulating in some situations and downregulating inothers. And second, metastasis, the dynamical principle underling dysregulation. Throughmetastasis, small initial fluctuations can become progressively amplified over time. Wecontrast these processes at the individual level (i.e. by examining moment-to-moment changein one child, considered independently) and also at the inter-personal level (i.e. by examiningchange across a dyad, such as a parent-child dyad). Finally, we discuss practical implicationsof this approach in improving the self-regulation of emotion and cognition, in typicaldevelopment and psychopathology.

Vocalisations and the Dynamics of Interpersonal Arousal Coupling in Caregiver-Infant dyads

Wass, S., Phillips, E., Smith, C., & Goupil, L. 2021. PsyArXiv

We currently understand little about how autonomic arousal influences early vocaldevelopment. To examine this, we used wearable microphones and autonomic sensors tocollect multimodal naturalistic datasets from 12-month-olds and their caregivers. Weobserved that, across the day, clusters of vocalisations occur during elevated infant andcaregiver arousal. This relationship is stronger in infants than caregivers:caregivers showgreater functional flexibility, and their vocal production is more influenced by the infant’sarousal than their own. Cries occur following reduced infant arousal stability and lead toincreased child-caregiver arousal coupling, and decreased infant arousal. Speech-likevocalisations also occur at elevated arousal, but lead to longer-lasting increases in arousal,and elicit more parental verbal responses. Our results suggest that vocal development is moredependent on interpersonal arousal coupling across caregiver-infant dyads than previously thought.

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.

How the development of executive function influences our moment-by-moment interactions with the real-world environment

Wass, S. 2021. PsyArXiv

Historically, the study of executive function (EF) development has relied on using experimental paradigms to assess EFs as abstract, time-invariant properties of individual brains. Here, we discuss new research that moves away from studying EFs purely as internal mental constructs, towards an approach that aims to understand how EFs are expressed through the inter-relationship between an individual’s brain and the world around them. We offer three illustrative examples of this approach. The first looks at how we learn to make predictions and anticipations based on different types of regularity in our early social and physical environment. The second looks at how we learn to correct, moment-by-moment, for changes in the outside world to maintain stability in the face of change. The third looks at how we allocate our attention on a moment-by-moment basis, in naturalistic settings. We discuss potential new therapeutic avenues for improving EFs arising from this research.

Needing to shout to be heard? Affective dysregulation, caregiver under-responsivity, and disconnection between vocal signalling and autonomic arousal in infants from chaotic households

Wass, S., Goupil, L., Smith, C., & Greenwood, E. 2021. PsyArXiv

Higher levels of household chaos have been related to increased child affect dysregulation during later development. To understand why this relationship emerges, we used miniature wearable microphones and autonomic monitors to obtain day-long recordings in home settings from a cohort of N=74 12-month-old infants and their caregivers from the South-East of the UK. Our findings suggest a disconnect between what infants communicate and their physiological arousal levels, that are likely to reflect what they experience. Specifically, in households which families self-reported as being more chaotic, infants were more likely to produce negative affect vocalisations such as cries at lower levels of arousal. This disconnection between signalling and autonomic arousal was also present in a lab still face procedure, where infants from more chaotic households showed reduced change in facial affect and slower physiological recovery despite equivalent change in arousal during the still face episode. Finally, we found that this disconnect between what infants communicate and their physiological arousal levels may influence the likelihood of a caregiver responding. Implications for understanding the mechanisms underlying the relationship between household chaos, emotion dysregulation and caregiver under-responsivity are discussed.