Baby brain science explores human knowledge

A smiling baby lying in a soft cot (furniture).

Babies are born social scientists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Friday! I read this article in the New York Times about Dr. Liz Spelke, at Harvard University, who studies the neuroscience of babies.

Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.

While the article primarily focused on what we can glean from babies about human cognition and knowledge, I couldn’t help but pick up on the author’s observations that the main thing the baby test subjects want to do, and the main thing that is enriching to them, is engage with the people around them (and how enriching it is for the grown-ups involved too):

The 15-pound research subject … tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.

“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”

Babies are born with a desire to learn and engage in their world. They are pretty helpless, and so the only thing they have to defend themselves, as well as learn, is to engage with others and beg for help. As soon as they figure out who’s safe, they look for more people like that:

Katherine D. Kinzler, now of the University of Chicago, and Kristin Shutts, now at the University of Wisconsin, have found that infants just a few weeks old show a clear liking for people who use speech patterns the babies have already been exposed to, and that includes the regional accents, twangs, and R’s or lack thereof. And in guiding early social leanings, accent trumps race.

But, babies are also fascinated with the unknown, and will stare at new concepts and objects for much longer than the known items and individuals.

To me the really interesting thing is that what most interests the baby subjects is getting to know the researchers. As grown-ups we don’t have to lose that sense of wonder. Many people grow up to be researchers (like Dr. Spelke). We can continue to be fascinated by our surroundings and new people and always seek knowledge about what’s around us.

P.S.: Also, just if you’re curious, according to the Spelke lab here are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:

  • They know what an object is. They know that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory.
  • Babies can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. They also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart.
  • Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.
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