Every parent thinks they’re baby is exceptionally smart — and cute, too. But while it can’t be true that every infant is above average, Lake Wobegon-style, it turns out that babies become able to reason surprisingly well at a very young age.
That’s the conclusion of a new study in the May 26 Science that explored the ability of 12-month-old infants to use their knowledge about the physical world to form sophisticated expectations about their surroundings.
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A team of researchers led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cognitive scientist Josh Tenenbaum had their 1-year-old test subjects watch movies in which four objects — three blue and one red — bounced inside a container. After a while, the babies’ view of the objects was temporarily blocked, and one of the blocks exited the container through an opening.
If the infants’ view was blocked very briefly — less than a second — they showed surprise if an object far from the container’s exit had fallen out. (A baby’s level of surprise can be gauged by how long he or she looks at something, an insight that comes from the pioneering work of Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke.) But if their view was blocked longer, for several seconds, they showed surprise only if the rarest object — the red block — had fallen out of the container.
Tenenbaum and his colleagues were able to construct a computational model that predicted how long babies would look at the container’s exit under a variety of different scenarios, varying the number of objects, their color and the time delay. The results suggest that infants are reasoning — understanding in the abstract what should be expected and what is unlikely.
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The Science study is just the first in a series of planned experiments to detail infant cognition, studying babies throughout their first few years of their lives in the hopes of describing exactly what they know and how they know it. Tenebaum, for one, is confident that infants are more intelligent than we might believe:
We think infants are much smarter, in a sense, than this model is. We now need to do more experiments and model a broader range of the existing literature to test exactly what they know.
Of course, infant reasoning has its limits. Just try convincing them to go to sleep.