My Eyes - Scientists using new technology to study infantsâ€™
eye movements say they can reveal what babies know and how they
to Talk to Kids - New research shows that the way we speak
to children has a huge effect on their language comprehension.
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Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn
If you come across someone staring up at the sky, chances are youâ€™d look
up too… but not if that personâ€™s eyes are closed.
This ScienCentral News video reports that infant researchers wanted to know
if thatâ€™s too subtle a difference for 12-month-olds. They say the fact
that it isnâ€™t tells us a lot about child development.
Out of sight, out of mind
Swiss psychologist Jean
Piaget came up with the term “object
permanence” to describe the fact that young infants think an object
ceases to exist when it is no longer in sight. In other words, take a ball
away from a 3-month old and put it in the closet, and heâ€™ll think that
there is no more ball. Do the same thing to a 9 month old, and she will know
to go into the closet for the ball if she wants it.
Child development is full of these subtle changes that we take for granted
as adults. Another thing child psychologists are interested in teasing out
is when children start to develop a “theory
of mind”—or the ability to recognize that other people have
their own thoughts, and to be able to infer what those thoughts might be.
To get an idea, Rechele
Brooks, research associate at the University of Washingtonâ€™s
for Mind, Brain & Learning, looked at gaze following in 12-, 14-,
and 18-month-olds. Previous studies showed that when an adult turns to look
at something in a room, an infant will follow the adultâ€™s gaze and look
toward the object as well. But it was unclear whether the child was simply
responding to the movement of the adultâ€™s head or whether the infant
knew to look where the adult was looking because they recognized that the
adult had found something specific and interesting in the room.
Brooks felt that experimenting with eye contact would help tease out the difference.
While playing with children at a table, she set up colorful toys on the left
and right sides of the room. At certain points during the experiment, she
turned to look at a toy, but sometimes did so with her eyes closed.
“And we were pleasantly surprised that our study broke new ground, because
we were the first to show that that eye contact at twelve months matters to
young children,” she says. “And it matters in a specific instance
that we think is important.”
That is, children were unlikely to look at the toy if Brooksâ€™s eyes were
closed, but very likely to do so when her eyes were open. This rules out the
notion that head movement in and of itself sort of drags infantsâ€™ attention
to where someone else is looking. The fact that they know you are using your
eyes to find something in the room is a clue that 12-month-olds recognize
that you have distinct thoughts and ideas, and that these thoughts can be
“Then sometimes they'll even point at it,” Brooks says. “And
it's sort of as if to say, ‘Oh, it's over there! We're doing this together!â€™
And kids get really excited about doing things with another person. Itâ€™s
a beginning, I think, of children beginning to understand that we share attention,
that we're interested in things together.”
Beyond pointing, Brooks and her colleague, Andrew
Meltzoff, also noted that children would tend to babble more when Brooks
looked at the toy with open eyes.
“And it's that package of children's actions—where they point and
talk and look—that really conveys that theyâ€™re beginning to understand
that we're sort of having a conversation. That we're indeed having a social
interaction,” Brooks says.
Understanding when these stages of development occur can help parents understand
at what age they can expect their children to take in another personâ€™s
point of view. And itâ€™s important in helping establish a baseline for
what is normal in child development. Theory of mind is a concept that children
with disorders like autism
find hard to grasp, and the lack of acquiring this important building block
of development—realizing the importance of eyes—may be an early
indicator of a social disorder.
Brooks says she next hopes to do similar studies in even younger children,
to see how early this behavior is present. Her work was published in the journal
Psychology, and was funded by the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Talaris
Research Institute, and the Apex Foundation.