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Babies resemble tiny scientists more than you might think

It’s been well established that when infants see something surprising, they look longer. This is true for babies as young as two months.

But until recently, few had asked why. A new Johns Hopkins University study has found that when an object behaves in an unusual way, the baby will explore more, learn more and “spontaneously test relevant hypotheses about the object’s behavior,” according to Aimee Stahl, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins who also is one of the study’s authors. The baby, in other words, becomes a tiny scientist.

The study was released today in the journal, Science.

“People have mused about it before, but nobody had directly tested whether that behavior — longer looking — served a particular purpose,” she said.

That gap in understanding formed the backbone of this study’s research question, she said. She and Feigenson wanted to see whether or not “babies are taking these surprising events as special opportunities to learn.”

According to their research, that is exactly what babies do.

When something acts outside the bounds of a baby’s expectations, the child tests that object’s properties, banging it against a tray or dropping it on the ground. Is it solid? Can it really fly?

This image demonstrates how an infant will test an object's properties if it appears to behave surprisingly. For example, if a car appears to float rather than fall when it rolls off of a table, the infant is inclined to drop the toy to see if it can still float. Image courtesy of Science.

This image demonstrates how an infant will test an object’s properties if it appears to behave surprisingly. For example, if a car appears to float rather than fall when it rolls off of a table, the infant is inclined to drop the toy to see if it can still float. Image courtesy of Science.

“Infants tailor their exploratory actions to the particular kind of surprising event they saw,” said Feigenson, director of graduate studies for Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and one of the study’s lead authors.

The team created a device that served as an optical illusion. A ball rolled down a wooden incline and then, due to a lever system, appeared to go through the wall. Another ball visibly rolled to a stop when it hit the wall.

Of the 11-month-olds who saw a ball “pass through the wall,” about 70 percent further investigated the object, Stahl said.

They did this by banging the ball against the tray on their high chairs, putting it in their mouths or rotating it in their tiny hands, she said.

“You can see them trying to figure it out,” she said.

The second group of 11-month-old babies saw the ball stop abruptly. Fewer than one-fifth of those infants tested the ball’s solidity, she said.

This study “opens up a new direction” for research about child development and infant learning, explained Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology and director of the Infant Language Lab at Temple University, who praised this new research.

“That’s a very interesting wake-up call,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Keeping things too routine is not the best way to help kids learn.”

For example, research has explored why children love to play peekaboo and hide-and-seek. When an adult places their hands over their face and then suddenly reappears, that moment of surprise captures an infant’s attention, Hirsh-Pasek explained. The study from Johns Hopkins takes that idea a step further, she said.

“Children wake up and re-attend, and possibly, it’s that reattendance that’s so key,” she said.

But the study also touches on a classic debate in child development that pits nature against nurture. Are we all born with core knowledge of how the world works, or are we products of our environment?

According to this study, both are true.

“Nature and nurture are not alternatives to one another,” Stahl said. “Infants and babies can harness their really rich, really sophisticated knowledge about the world to guide what they should learn about in the future.”

Going forward, Stahl said she and Feigenson want to know if an element of surprise is a helpful learning tool not only for 11-month-old infants, as in this particular study, but also older children and adults. Outside of a controlled laboratory, could a children’s museum with exhibits full of hidden moments of wonder create a richer learning environment?

“Is this a general learning phenomenon across development throughout the lifespan?” she asked.

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