Infant Information Processing

All sorts of surprising capabilities have been documented in young babies. We have already discussed several: imitating faces and recognizing the mother's voice. Here are some others:

What are some other capabilities discovered in newborns?

Pointing. Thomas Hannan, a researcher at Duke University, produced video evidence that babies 3-8 weeks of age could point with their fingers. This was true even though the parents had not noticed it and did not believe the babies were old enough to point. The behavior is identical to the pointing behavior of 1 year olds, Hannan said. By the time a baby is 1 year old, pointing is expected so parents recognize it (Turkington, 1992).

Counting. After researchers in the early 1990s reported evidence that babies had an innate "number sense," a "whole branch of cognitive psychology sprang up" to investigate the question. The results are mixed; some claim to have verified the phenomenon, others say the babies are just responding to simpler perceptual cues (Azar, 1999).

Language rule learning. Babies attend longer to sentences with unfamiliar structures than to sentences with familiar structures. This suggests that they are sensitive to the rules of language formation, on some level, well before they can talk (Marcus, Vijayan, Rao, & Vishton, 1999).

How is habituation used in many of these studies?

Most of these studies use a habituation/dishabituation paradigm (also called release from habituation; see p.229). Habituation is the nervous system's tendency to respond less and less to a familiar pattern. Babies habituate to familiar visual patterns and eventually stop looking at them. They perk up again and spend longer looking if they see a novel pattern (something they have not seen before).

To show that a baby can "count," the baby might be presented with a series of pictures showing two objects, always in random positions with a variety of colors. Eventually the baby grows tired and starts to look away. At some point, a picture with three objects is introduced into the series. If the baby suddenly orients to the stimulus and spends longer looking at the new stimulus than it has to the preceding series, this is taken as evidence that the baby notices the difference between two items and three items.

The findings above are surprising, but perhaps they are less surprising when you realize that similar capabilities have been demonstrated in non-human animals. Everything on the list above is a form of implicit or unspoken cognitive ability very different from the sorts of skill cultivated in school, where conscious effort is required.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey