Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Zoe Ngo

Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Research Focus

Zoe Ngo’s research aims to understand how children develop two kinds of memory: one that preserves the specific experiences of our past, and the other that accumulates generalizable knowledge and applies such knowledge to new situations. Her research asks two main questions: What are the processes that support each kind of memory? And which changes in children’s brains explain their memory improvements? She examines how the building blocks of an adaptive memory assemble as children move from early to middle childhood by using behavioral and neuroimaging methods.

My plans for the fellowship period

Memory enables us to access the specific events that make up our past, and at the same time, amass knowledge that guides predictions for possible futures. I am interested in how children develop these basic and complementary memory skills from age 4 to age 8. I target three building blocks of an adaptive memory: (i) remembering complex events, (ii) preventing confusion between similar experiences, and (iii) generalizing based on past experiences. During my fellowship, I will investigate how each of the three components develops, how they interact, and how brain maturation supports children’s improvements in memory skills.

First, I will use a selection of behavioral assessments to measure children’s competence in each memory component at different ages. I will use statistical methods to understand the relationship between these building blocks of an adaptive memory, and test whether its structure differs with age. Second, I will test how each aspect of memory changes within the same child over the course of three years. I will also track the changes in each child’s regional brain volumes and connectivity via neuroimaging. This approach will allow us to examine how specific aspects of brain maturation can explain certain increases in children’s memory abilities.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

Generalization and memory skills are the cognitive backbone of school readiness and success. Therefore, promoting positive development of these skills during the transition from preschool to primary education will produce long-lasting benefits for the well-being and future career outcomes of every child. Seeking knowledge of how these foundational skills develop during the formative developmental period is the first step towards optimizing children’s learning potential. I believe that by charting the developmental timetable of generalization and memory skills, we will have a deeper understanding of children’s age-related propensity to acquire and retain certain kinds of information over others. Further, in order to create a fruitful learning environment, we need developmentally appropriate educational strategies, tailored to the young learners’ individualized memory profiles. Understanding how memory development and brain maturation differs from child to child will inform teaching practices that accommodate the individuality of memory development. My long-term goal for this research is to contribute to theoretical and diagnostic guidance for future educational technologies and interventions on the basis of individualized memory development profiles.