Your Baby the Scientist
For months, you awaited the arrival of your little one. Now as you gaze through your sleep-deprived eyes at this beautiful creature, you may be trying to wrap your mind around the idea that this being was not long ago only the size of a poppy seed. But despite all that growth, your wrinkly, wiggly, baby human probably looks pretty clueless. After all, he is soooo helpless, and his primary activities seem to be sleeping and waking, and moving food in and out. Pretty basic, right?
Think again. Helpless does not mean clueless. In fact, some scientists (like Kidd and Piantadosi at the University of Rochester) believe that the human species is so intelligent precisely because babies are helpless for so long. Essentially, humans need large brains for high intelligence, but those brains must be small enough to survive the physical constraints of birth, so compared to other primates, humans are born unusually early with a significant amount of brain development occurring after birth.
While it is true that your child’s brain undergoes an impressive period of change from birth to age three (producing more than a million neural connections each second) - your baby is not, as previous generations of scholars believed, born a “blank slate.” In fact, he came into the world a social being ready to connect and learn. We used to under-estimate (and surely still do) all the work babies do to make sense of the world around them. But we now know that long before they can speak, babies are actively taking in the sounds, smells, sights, and even the mathematical properties around them.
Like an anthropologist in a foreign land, your baby is studying the qualities of her caregivers, and analyzing information about the physical world of objects. Your baby is a natural scientist. Let’s look at how she uses the scientific method - observing, hypothesis building, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing conclusions - to make sense of the world.
Unless they’re asleep, babies are always observing. We often think of young children as lacking an ability to pay attention. But a more accurate description is that babies and young children have trouble not attending. If you have ever tried to get some place in a hurry with your toddler, you know what this means. They are wired to stop and smell the flowers. Babies’ attention drifts toward anything they think might teach them about the world, and you are in the best position to recognize and build on your child’s innate curiosity.
Babies make hypotheses about the social world by observing you. Parents often believe their pre-verbal babies and toddlers are unaware of the nuances of the social world, when in fact they are paying very close attention to your non-verbal cues. By the second half of their first year, babies look to their caregivers for clues as to whether they should approach or avoid when faced with unfamiliar situations. Let’s say a stranger walks into the room. Your baby will look at the stranger, then look back to you, then look at the stranger, then look back to you – and in all this looking he is getting a read on your cues to assess whether this newcomer is a friend or foe. If this is someone you’re not particularly fond of, your baby can pick up on even subtle changes in your physiological state – your heartbeat increases, your muscles tense, your tone of voice shifts, your body language becomes self-protective. Social referencing helps babies and toddlers assess threat. You probably try to capitalize on this phenomena when you pretend those mushy peas are “mmm… yummy!” and make a delighted face to entice your baby to “approach” rather than “avoid.”
Babies test hypotheses with their eyes (and mouths, and hands). Your baby is smarter than she looks, and her looking makes her smarter! The scientific study of infant development has been challenged by the fact that we can’t ask our subjects what they know, because they can’t talk. This bias toward verbal proof of knowledge led to decades of assumptions that babies were largely unthinking and even unfeeling. But recent studies of cognitive development have shown that babies are working hard to understand the physical world of objects, and they know when things don’t add up. In laboratory studies, babies spend more time staring in disbelief at unlikely, or statistically improbable outcomes. The unexpectedness of an unlikely outcome catches babies’ attention and entices them into scientific exploration.
For example, in a 2015 paper in the journal Science, Stahl and Feigenson at the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that infants use surprising events as opportunities to learn. They created an optical illusion where it looked like a ball magically rolled through a solid wall. 70% of 11-month-olds who saw the ball seemingly pass through the wall investigated the ball by banging it, rotating it, and mouthing it, in an attempt to demystify the seemingly magical properties of the object. Over time, through these types of exploratory investigations, babies develop a picture of how the physical world works. And like any good scientist, babies need to repeat their experiments before they draw a conclusion. So the next time your child is delighting at the apparent magic of peek-a-boo or seems driven to test and re-test gravity’s invisible force by throwing food on the floor, try to keep in mind that your baby is doing exactly what she needs to do to keep learning.