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Developing adaptive control: Age-related differences in task choices and awareness of proactive and reactive control demands


Developmental changes in executive function are often explained in terms of core cognitive processes and associated neural substrates. For example, younger children tend to engage control reactively in the moment as needed, whereas older children increasingly engage control proactively, in anticipation of needing it. Such developments may reflect increasing capacities for active maintenance dependent upon dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. However, younger children will engage proactive control when reactive control is made more difficult, suggesting that developmental changes may also reflect decisions about whether to engage control, and how. We tested awareness of temporal control demands and associated task choices in 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds and adults using a demand selection task. Participants chose between one task that enabled proactive control and another task that enabled reactive control. Adults reported awareness of these different control demands and preferentially played the proactive task option. Ten-year-olds reported awareness of control demands but selected task options at chance. Five-year-olds showed neither awareness nor task preference, but a subsample who exhibited awareness of control demands preferentially played the reactive task option, mirroring their typical control mode. Thus, developmental improvements in executive function may in part reflect better awareness of cognitive demands and adaptive behavior, which may in turn reflect changes in dorsal anterior cingulate in signaling task demands to lateral prefrontal cortex.

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