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The science of baby brains

The New York Times recently profiled Dr. Elizabeth S. Spelke, a Harvard professor of psychology and researcher of baby brain development. Dubbed a pioneer in the field of infant gaze and infant social intelligence, Dr. Spelke strives to find the root of human cognition. By measuring how long infants stare at something, Dr. Spelke and her colleagues are able to conduct research to find out what exactly babies “know” before the age of one.

Here’s what they’ve found so far:

“They know what an object is: a discrete physical unit in which all sides move roughly as one, and with some independence from other objects.

A baby has the same expectation. If you show the baby a trick sequence in which a rod that appears to be solid moves back and forth behind another object, the baby will gape in astonishment when that object is removed and the rod turns out to be two fragments.

Babies know, too, 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 are born accountants. They can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. Show infants arrays of, say, 4 or 12 dots and they will match each number to an accompanying sound, looking longer at the 4 dots when they hear 4 sounds than when they hear 12 sounds, even if each of the 4 sounds is played comparatively longer. Babies 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, and looking longer when the wrong number of dots appears.

Babies are born Euclideans. Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.”

According to Dr. Spelke team’s research, babies show preference for the familiar languages and accents, a preference which trumps other differences. The New York Times provide this example, “A white American baby would rather accept food from a black English-speaking adult than from a white Parisian, and a 5-year-old would rather befriend a child of another race who sounds like a local than one of the same race who has a foreign accent.”

Currently, Dr. Spelke’s team is researching whether babies expect certain behaviors from such as group conformity, individual sensibility, and if and when an object is inanimate.

Read the whole article here.

Want to know more about baby brain development? Register to attend Early Learning: Do We Need it? The Science of Baby Brain Development.

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