Adults tend to think about the future to the point of insanity. Children on the other hand can exist in the moment, according to studies published in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Studies conducted by psychologists Cristina Atance from the University of Ottawa and colleague Andrew Meltzoff from the University of Washington demonstrated that children may be too preoccupied with the present to have much capability to comprehend the future.

In one study, the scientists divided preschoolers into four groups. Two groups were fed pretzels to the point of thirst. The other groups were not given any.

As a result of the salty, thirst inducing pretzels, one group of youngsters portrayed the thirsty feeling to have had such an affect that the thought of consuming pretzels for the rest of the day was unappealing.

When asked what they would prefer the next day, pretzels or water, the other group of pretzel consumers demonstrated no interest in the snack food. Children who were not allotted the food, however, found it more appetizing for either day.

By understanding the boundaries of a child in comprehending the future adults can take a more realistic approach when interacting with youth.

“This research can benefit parents, teachers and other individuals working with children as it can allow them to set realistic expectations for, and better interpret, children’s everyday behavior,” Atance said.

Atance and Meltzoff performed another experiment involving children ages three to five. The youngsters were told that they were going to the mountains, and that they could bring one of the following: A lunch, a comb, or a bowl.

The four and five-year-olds chose to bring the lunch on their imaginary excursion, which was the “correct” answer, whereas the three-year-olds chose the unrelated bowl or comb option.

The results reinforce the idea that as children develop so does their capability of what the researchers call “mental time travel.” This kind of thinking may be indicative of the cognitive development that children experience as they try to explain their increasingly unpredictable world.

Laura E. Schulz, assistant professor of cognitive science at MIT authored a 2006 study in which she tested children’s abilities to explain the unexplainable.

Schultz’s research hints at the notion that humans use this cause and effect framework of ideas beginning at a younger age than most adults give them credit for. “Kids' fundamental beliefs affect their learning. Their theoretical framework affects their understanding of evidence, just as it does for scientists,” Schultz said.

In collaboration with Jessica Sommerville of the University of Washington, Shultz analyzed 144 preschoolers testing their interpretation of toys lighting up with the flip of a switch.

In one group the switch worked all the time, in the other it didn’t. Both groups were shown that removing a ring from the toy would cause the light to go out. Next, the youngsters were told to stop the switch from turning the light on.

The children who always saw the toy light up removed the ring. Conversely, those who saw the light turned on intermittently reasoned that there must have been some sort of explanation for this unpredictability. Instead of removing the ring many of them suspected that the scientists were secretly controlling the light. As a result, they went looking for the solution on the scientist’s person rather than on the toy.

“It's important to understand that kids are approaching the world with deep assumptions that affect their actions and their explanations and shape what they're able to learn next,” Schultz surmised.

In addition to portraying children as being more intuitive than previously assumed, Schultz said we now know that abstract beliefs are possible at a younger age. “Four-year-olds have more sophisticated reasoning than adults tend to give them credit for.”