Science Claims That Children Perceive Stimuli That Adults Don't See

Children see the world in a broader and richer way than adults. Indeed, our perpetual hurrying, along with selective attention and minimal curiosity puts us at a disadvantage.
Science Claims That Children Perceive Stimuli That Adults Don't See
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Children perceive stimuli that adults don’t see. Aspects, nuances, and singularities that, due to our haste or selective attention, as adults, we simply don’t notice.

Science has discovered two things in this regard. Firstly, little ones have virtues that many of us lose with age. Secondly, the world seen through a child’s eyes is richer and far more impressive.

We often undervalue the perception of our children, students, or children in general. It’s true that we see them as young people with great potential. Nevertheless, sometimes we actually limit them by taking it for granted that they still process the world in an immature and even limited way.

However, this isn’t the case. While it’s probable that when it comes to cognitive processes, they still have a great deal to learn and develop, when it comes to perception, four to five-year-olds tend to be extraordinary…

“Children should be taught how to think, not what to think.” 

-Margaret Mead-

Girl with closed eyes representing that children perceive stimuli that adults do not see

Why don’t children and adults see the same thing?

We all know that children have virtues that, due to their age and innocence, make them unique. Indeed, only they are capable of seeing the world in such an innovative and challenging way at the same time. Everything attracts their attention and everything makes them ask questions. In fact, reality, for them, is an infinite scenario of experimentation and of trying to understand the world around them.

Vladimir Nabokov used to say that curiosity is basically insubordination in its purest form. Children enjoy their “insubordination” until the adult sets boundaries and tells them how to think, how to understand things, and how to respond to them. Because, somehow, as we grow up, we end up dissolving ourselves in those guidelines of thought that are imposed on us. In fact, our insatiable curiosity is extinguished and we become somewhat more predictable and methodical.

The claim that children perceive stimuli that adults don’t see, might make you think that perhaps they possess extraordinary powers. Furthermore, that maybe they see entities and singularities that escape us. However, this isn’t the case. As a matter of fact, in reality, what they perceive, we would see as well, if we were able to attend to the world in another way.

The children’s world and its extended attention

In 2017, the Ohio State University conducted research that was published in the Association for Psychological Science journal. The researchers sought to understand how the attention of an adult differs from that of a child.  They discovered that children between four and five years old outperform adults in remembering irrelevant information.

In fact, when the two groups were asked to recall a series of particular elements, the adults were more adept at evoking certain stimuli. In other words, the selective attention of adults is superior to that of children. However, the little ones were able to remember aspects and details that the older people hadn’t even detected.

For example, when the researchers asked a child and an adult to remember a picture with a series of characters, the older person remembered a greater number of items. The child, on the other hand, remembered what the person who administered the test was like and what shirt they were wearing, as well as what they themselves saw through the window at the time.

Adults exhibit greater ability in selective attention. However, children are defined by extended, broader, and less specific attention.

The curious gaze of children

It’s clear that children perceive stimuli that adults don’t see. This is explained by their innate curiosity. It’s interesting to learn that this eagerness for information, defined by less specific and more extensive attention can be explained by something rather exact. This is the fact that curiosity is linked to survival.

Often, we say that curiosity killed the cat. In fact, the truth is that it probably made the cat wiser. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester (USA) conducted some interesting research in this regard. They found that curiosity is a basic element of cognition. Indeed, thanks to curiosity, the advancement of society is promoted in all areas. For example, medical, social, technological, etc. Furthermore, if the five-year-old child perceives more things than adults do, it’s because curiosity forms an inherent part of their development.

Gradually, they’ll be able to ignore distractions to focus on what’s important and thus be more efficient. However, it’s far better if they don’t lose that potential and continue to appreciate certain details concerning the environment. Indeed, the curious gaze should never lose the momentum it has in childhood.

Children dressed as pirates on a cardboard ship representing that children perceive stimuli that adults do not see

Digital disconnection to connect children to their environment

New technologies can be an exceptional resource for children. However, it’s necessary to make good use of them. For example, it’s never a good idea that they concentrate all their leisure time on the screens. Neither is it advisable to expose them to these devices at an early age. 

We should promote, as far as possible, the child’s interaction with their environment and with their peers. We need to ensure that they explore, relate to, and discover the world with their five senses. Not only through sight. Or touch, with their fingers on the mobile or tablet. Instead, let them run, get dirty, and invent things for themselves, like cardboard spaceships.

It’s true that children perceive stimuli that adults don’t see. However, there’ll come a time when, if they’re continuously exposed to screens, their attention levels will be deficient and their sense of curiosity will be minimal. Let’s try and ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The curious mind needs stimuli of all kinds to survive, so let’s not limit it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Plebanek DJ, Sloutsky VM. Costs of Selective Attention: When Children Notice What Adults Miss. Psychol Sci. 2017 Jun;28(6):723-732. doi: 10.1177/0956797617693005. Epub 2017 Apr 7. Erratum in: Psychol Sci. 2017 Jun;28(6):829. PMID: 28388275; PMCID: PMC5461181.
  • Pillow BH, Flavell JH. Young children’s knowledge about visual perception: projective size and shape. Child Dev. 1986 Feb;57(1):125-35. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1986.tb00013.x. PMID: 3948590.

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