Late maturation of executive control promotes conceptual development
Control processes are critical for the generation of task-appropriate behaviour across cognitive domains, yet children have a long developmental period with reduced executive control. Traditionally, this is viewed as a negative but necessary consequence of the time taken to learn control processes and develop the prefrontal cortex. Here, we exploit a recent computational model of controlled semantic cognition to formally test an alternative (yet perhaps complementary) view that a developmental
... eriod without control promotes conceptual knowledge acquisition. Our simulations show that maturational delay and anatomical connectivity conspire to promote conceptual learning. Learning conceptual structure necessitates a connection from control to more peripheral regions rather than the deep multimodal hub. Delayed control speeds conceptual learning without compromising conceptual representations, particularly when control connects to intermediate layers. These results are counterintuitive as delayed control onset can produce overall faster mastery of controlled behaviours. To assess whether delayed semantic control is also observed over development, we conducted a meta-analysis of the classic triadic matching task where participants decide which of two options best matches a third. Matching can be based on taxonomic or thematic relations, and when these conflict, participants must use task context to determine which relation to choose - that is, they must exert semantic control. Children aged 2 have the representations to identify both relations when distractors are unrelated, but when relations conflict, they cannot use context to guide their choices. Context-sensitivity develops later than conceptual structure and shows large increases around 6, a critical time for executive function across domains.