Baby, dwell on it!

New research is helping to explain how infants learn by looking and how that learning is vital to forming memories

Baby looking at a toy
Babies learn by looking after learning to look

We all know that an infant has a brain that is primed to learn new things perpetually. Hence, parents create novel and colourful environments to encourage this preference for learning. To commend this theory, researchers at the University of Iowa have documented an activity by infants that begins nearly from birth: They learn by taking inventory of the things they see.

The psychologists suggested that looking and learning should be viewed as intertwined and not separately, to fully appreciate how infants gain knowledge and how that knowledge is seared into memory.

These researchers created a mathematical model that mimics, in real time and through months of child development, how infants use looking to understand their environment. This model validates the importance of looking to learning and to forming memories. It also can be adapted by child development specialists to help special-needs children and infants born prematurely to combine looking and learning more effectively.

The model examined the looking-learning behavior of infants as young as 6 weeks through one year of age, through 4,800 simulations at various points in development involving multiple stimuli and tasks. It showed that an infant lingered on something that’s being shown to it for the first time as it learned about it, and that the ‘total looking time’ decreased as the infant became more familiar with it.

But the researchers also propose that infants need to dwell on things for a sufficient amount of time to learn and form memories which can affect their learning later on.

To examine why infants need to dwell on objects, the researchers further created two different models. One model learned in a ‘responsive’ world where every time the model, as young as six weeks, looked away from a new object, the object was jiggled to get the model to look at it again. Another learned in a ‘non-responsive’ world where every time a model looked at a new object, objects elsewhere were jiggled to distract it. The results showed that the responsive models helped infants familiarise themselves with new objects and store them into memory well enough that when shown them again, they quickly recognised them.

The results underscore the notion that only looking is a critical entry point into the development of an infant’s brain. Because, if that’s the case, we may be able to manipulate and change what the brain is doing to aid infants born prematurely or who have special needs.

Eurekalert!

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