Can an Unpredictable Childhood Environment Enhance Working Memory? Testing the Sensitized-Specialization Hypothesis.

Etnan S. Young, Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry A. Simpson, Theodore E. A. Waters, & Chiraag Mittal

  • Although growing up in an adverse childhood environment tends to impair cognitive functions, evolutionary-developmental theory suggests that this might be only one part of the story. A person's mind may instead become developmentally specialized and potentially enhanced for solving problems in the types of environments in which the person grew up. In the current research, we tested whether these specialized advantages in cognitive function might be sensitized to emerge in currently uncertain contexts. We refer to this as the sensitized-specialization hypothesis. We conducted experimental tests of this hypothesis in the domain of working memory, examining how growing up in unpredictable versus predictable environments affects different facets of working memory. Although growing up in an unpredictable environment is typically associated with impairments in working memory, we show that this type of environment is positively associated with those aspects of working memory that are useful in rapidly changing environments. Importantly, these effects emerged only when the current context was uncertain. These theoretically derived findings suggest that childhood environments shape, rather than uniformly impair, cognitive functions.

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