Babies are already smarter than most people realize, but to further their development, they may need an occasional surprise, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the researchers ran a series of experiments to test the idea that babies behave like little scientists when things break with their expectations about the world.
For example, the Johns Hopkins’ psychologists would show a ball rolling down a ramp. For the final part of the ball’s trip, a grey wall would obscure the baby’s view, but it would appear like the ball should have been stopped by another purple wall.
When the grey wall was removed, the baby would either see the ball was stopped by the purple barrier (the expected result) or seemed to pass through the obstacle (the surprise result).
Babies who saw the surprise wanted to play with the ball more than other toys. More than that, they would experiment with it by banging it against something hard, seemingly to test if the ball could really pass through solid matter.
The Johns Hopkins’ cognitive psychologists ran similar experiments that seemed to show an object floating, a different kind of surprise for the infants. The babies in that set of experiments would more often drop the object to see if it would float again.
One of the study’s co-authors, Lisa Feigenson, explained this is because infants have already formed expectations about the world around them.
“Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning.”
Essentially the babies were behaving like little scientists, testing out the world around them.
Other studies already showed preschoolers and older children engaged in this kind of learning behavior, but this research showed that those tendencies exist in children of all ages. The researchers tested 110 babies, all 11-months-old.
That conclusion was interesting, but the researchers went one step further, according to the Washington Post.
They showed that a surprise would prime the baby into a state of heightened learning.
After showing the surprising event, the researchers would make a particular noise while shaking a particular object. Then they made the noise again to see if the baby looked at the associated object, a test for learning recognition.
The researchers found babies who just experienced a surprise learned to associate the noise with the object faster.
Still, it might not be a good idea to break apart your baby’s expectations of reality to get a leg up on the learning process.
Scott Johnson, director of UCLA’s baby lab, explained the baby is primed to learn about the surprising objects, but that may have limited practical applications.
“But what does that really do in the real world for them? It’s hard to say. That’s not a criticism. That’s just a question.”
Still, for the older children, experimentation is a good thing, according to another prominent experimenter. Speaking scientist to scientist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained to one little girl the best thing she could do for the world is explore, even if that meant making a mess and banging pots and pans around.
There was no comment from the parents.
The full study on baby development and surprise is available on Science here.
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