Crib Notes for Infants

Inspired by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, APS Fellow Renee Baillargeon, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, continues to refine and challenge what we think we know about infants with her premise that premise that infants “are smarter than we think.” Aided by refined methodologies, she is challenging old constructs and her research is producing exciting findings.

In an invited address, “Infants’ Physical World,” presented at the APS Convention in Atlanta, Baillargeon shared her model for how infants acquire the building blocks of cognition, including a method for teaching infants essential principles of spatial reasoning at earlier ages.

Baillargeon has repeatedly demonstrated that infants as young as 2-months can sustain attention longer to events that disrupt their expectations of their world. She has hypothesized that the ability to detect change is innate, though what an infant attends to is knowledge dependent. It is this attention to change that provides the foundation for Baillargeon’s research paradigms.

Extensive investigation into spatial reasoning has led Baillargeon to use three spatial reasoning conditions in her research. She investigated to what extent infants were able to determine how much of a tall object should be hidden in:

– Occlusion events: the object was lowered behind an occluder.
– Containment events: the object was hidden inside a container.
– Covering events: the object was covered by another object.

Observing the infants’ attention to changes in these event conditions has led to fascinating insight into the timeline for developing general spatial reasoning principles.

According to Baillargeon, “infants identify variables to predict the outcomes more and more accurately over time. They do not generalize across categories.” Her research has shown that an infant may, over time, develop the expectation for continuity in the height of an object during an occlusion event, but they may not generalize this principle to containment or covering events. Baillargeon suggests that this is because an infant is “blind” to the changes in variables if they are unaware of the relevance of the changes.

She has set out on the ambitious path of teaching infants to attend to relevant variables. She speculates that if an infant could be taught that a variable is relevant, the infant could then be able to detect violations of expectations for that variable, regardless of the event category. This means infants would demonstrate generalization of the learned spatial principle.

By encouraging infants to notice the contrasting outcomes of variables, she hopes to stimulate the infants to generate a causal analysis for the surprising outcome and incorporate the information into their existing knowledge. Using this approach, Baillargeon has demonstrated that infants at the age of 9 months are able to detect violations that uninstructed infants do not detect until after they are a year old. She has demonstrated retention of the learned principle up to a day following instruction.

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