Are babies scientists?


People who read this and know me in real life will know that I say babies are smart pretty often, thanks to having a genius little sister. However, this week and last week my lectures and seminars have been about child development, and all I have to say is wow…they’re almost impossibly smart.

Most old theories of how children developed assumed that they were passive; that babies were just absorbing everything that happened around them. However, more recent theories and research say the opposite; that even young babies actively search for new experiences, and make hypotheses about how the world works based on their experiences.

A video we watched in the lecture showed different aged babies watching “impossible” situations- such as toys breaking the law of gravity. This was to see if they would have been surprised because the rules were broken or if they hadn’t learnt them yet. In most of the situations, even 3 month old babies were surprised because they had already learnt that objects behave in specific ways. For example, in a challenge where a toy doll looked like it had a passed invisibly under a bridge, they worked out that it was actually two dolls at various points on the bridge. (Although some of the explanations could have just been the experimenters; in that task, the majority of my class hadn’t worked out it was two dolls, so the babies might not have).

However in one of these clips, where a gloved hand pushed a block off a ledge, which then didn’t fall, something went wrong because 3 month old babies were surprised showing they understood gravity, but 3.5 month old babies weren’t surprised. This confused the experimenters, as it shouldn’t be possible for babies to regress in their  understanding. Eventually, one of them suggested that the slightly older babies weren’t surprised because they had made the hypothesis that the finger pushing the block was actually supporting it after it should have fallen. This sounds much too complicated for a 14 week-old, but they tried the experiment again, removing the hand after pushing the block. This time, all of the babies were again surprised, showing they had made a hypothesis, and now had to re-evaluate it because it was proved wrong.

Because babies can’t talk, so can’t explain their thought processes to us, there was no way of studying their perceptions and thoughts until psychologists realised they would look at and focus on the most interesting parts of their environment. Psychologists now use eye-tracking in the majority of studies on babies, and using this has shown that the theories of child development we normally use underestimate babies and young children’s intelligence and progress. using eye-tracking also means we can study how and what they see, as we now know that babies like to look at really complicated patterns, and they also prefer to look at human faces over pretty much anything else.

This knowledge means that psychologists have been able to take studies on younger children to its extreme- they have even been able to find out that if foetuses are repeatedly read a book by their mother, they will recognise the pattern of how she reads it, and will enjoy that book more as newborns. While that sounds crazy, it is amazing research because it gives us a glimpse into the very beginning of our interaction with the world, and scientists will eventually be able to find out more about the beginnings of our development.

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