Masuo Koyasu

The Front Lines of Research in Cognitive Development

Just as a butterfly flies around looking as if it has forgotten that it was ever a caterpillar, adults have completely forgotten that they were once children. Let us recall the joys and sorrows of childhood.

My field of research is developmental psychology, particularly intellectual development. Intellectual development is a field of research pioneered by Alfred Binet(1857-1911) and Henri Wallon (1879-1962) of France, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) of Russia, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) of Switz-erland, and Jerome Bruner (1915-) of the United States. It uses experiments and observation to elucidate the ways in which children's perceptions, language, thinking, intelligence, and other mental traits develop as they grow older. It most often employs the scientific method of asking young children (ages 18 months to 6 years) and children (ages 6 to 12) to solve specific problems and then analyzing the ways in which the children arrive at their solutions. In this way, developmental psychologists investigate how much children understand. In the 1980s, I was interested in studying the development of perspective-taking in young children. Piaget's "three mountains task" had demonstrated that children find it difficult to understand how something looks to a person who is in a different position from themselves. In fact, younger children exhibit a strong tendency to choose their own view when asked to indicate how an object looks to someone in another position, a tendency that Piaget called "egocentrism." I thought there are three dimensions of egocentrism (up and down, front and back, and left and right), and that children's difficulty in understanding different perspectives might be because they do not receive feedback about other people's perspectives. To test this hypothesis, I conducted a series of experiments with kindergarteners.

Figure 1. Experimental Situation A:Child,B:Experimenter,C:Sample Photos,D:Place to put toy animal(s),E:Three toy animals,F:Still camera or video camera

The task in the first experiment was to face a camera set up across from them and then to arrange one to three toy animals in a way that would produce a photograph like the sample (Figure 1). Forty-three percent of the four-year-olds exhibited front and back egocentrism by placing the toy animals' backs to the camera. That tendency had mostly disappeared among the five-year-olds and six-year-olds, but it became clear that hardly any of the four- to six-year-olds could position two or three toy animals in the correct left-to-right order. In a second experiment, I used a video camera instead of a still camera and provided video feedback, showing an image of the toy animals as viewed from the opposite side on a color CRT monitor. In the control group, which was shown only the CRT monitor, the children were able to correct their front-back egocentrism on their own but were not informed of their errors. Even in the experimental group, which received instruction and practice in correcting left-right egocentrism, the effect on their post-test results was clearly small (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Mean number correct in each condition

Until the age of about seven, most children facing a teacher who says, "Let's raise our right hands" while raising his or her own right hand will raise their left hands.

Incidentally, research into perspective-taking abilities has traditionally focused on investigating how children understand other people's viewpoints, but I have noticed a serious limitation in the paradigm commonly used to study this. In the case of the "three mountains task," even if children can't directly guess the viewpoint of a person in another position, they can solve the problem by conducting a mental simulation in which they imagine that they have gone to the other person's position, or by a type of mental rotation, in which they imagine that the object has been placed on a lazy Susan and rotated to the correct position. The lack of methodological distinctions in the perspective-taking paradigm was a major problem. As I was worrying about how to think about this problem, I encountered research into "theory of mind." In particular, I spent ten months as a visiting scholar in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford from 1994 to 1995, where I had the opportunity to come into contact with the front lines of British research into cognitive development. After returning to Japan, I began studying "theory of mind," but at that time, hardly anyone else in the country was doing so. Without intending to, I have had to carry out the role of "missionary" in the field of "theory of mind" in Japan.

The most famous experiment in "theory of mind" is the false belief task (the so-called "Sally and Anne task") of Josef Perner and his colleagues. "Sally puts a doll in a basket. While Sally is away, Anne takes the doll out of the basket and puts it into a box nearby. Sally then returns and the child is asked where Sally will look for her doll." In general, three-year-olds can't pass this task, but they become able to do so between the ages of four and six. It has also been demonstrated that even high-functioning autistic children can't pass this task. It is odd that most young children are easily deceived by this task, which is no problem at all for adults. I have been observing the daily lives of children at a Kyoto kindergarten once a week for three years, as well as conducting developmental research, including the false belief task. As a result, I have obtained longitudinal data on "theory of mind" (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Results of a longitudinal study of "theory of mind"

The data presented in this figure began with 15 children, with 4 more children transferring in at the ages of four and five, for a total of 19 children at the end. Only one child regressed from being able to pass the task to failing it, but he was a boy who became extremely nervous and made mistakes in the testing situation at age five and six. The fact that I was conducting experiments on children with whom I was in contact on a daily basis made me feel that I could interpret the results more broadly.

Currently, I am conducting cross-cultural research in cooperation with Professor Charlie Lewis at Lancaster University in the UK in order to study the development of "theory of mind" and executive functions related to maintenance of attention and inhibition of behavior. I also plan to investigate "theory of mind" as part of a 12-year longitudinal study of 1,200 children sponsored by the NHK Broadcasting Cultural Research Institute.

As you can see from the above, my research is centered on cognitive development, but I do research a wide variety of areas, including understanding of metaphors and perception of pain.

Photo of Koyasu

Masuo Koyasu

Born in Kyoto, 1950
Specialized Research Field: Developmental Psychology
Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University
Ph.D., Kyoto University
Professor, Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University

"My interest in psychology was sparked by a novel I read in high school by Morio Kita called 'Yoru to Kiri no Sumi de' ('In the Corner of Night and Fog'), a tragic story about the efforts of psychiatrists at the time when the Nazis persecuted people who suffered from mental disorders. I became fascinated by the world of the human mind."

When the Japanese Cognitive Science Society was formed in 1984, its inaugural meeting was hosted by Kyoto University. Prof. Koyasu's mentor, Prof. Takao Umemoto (1921-2002) of the Faculty of Education, chaired that conference. Since then, Prof. Koyasu has actively focused his own psychological research within the framework of cognitive science. Prof. Koyasu adopts the "modularity of mind" approach, which argues that instead of mind being a single unit, mind is divided into several modules, which function independently of each other. His current research includes experimental studies of the process by which young children and children develop an understanding of the intentions that lie behind the words and actions of others. He correlates children's development of an understanding of others with aspects of emergent thinking, such as the "perspective-taking" spatial awareness module, "theory of mind" self-other awareness module, and the "metaphor" speech recognition module. Prof. Koyasu also conducts empirical research on multimedia technology in education.