December 13, 2006

Elliot's Brain

Babies are smart, kinda. Not to refute the conclusions of the famed Onion study on baby intelligence, but really: they are more smart than we thought. Interesting studies keep popping up showing very young babies able to do things like, for example, tell the difference between two different quantities of items -- i.e. count. Babies can experience both jealousy and empathy--which means that at some level they understand self, other, competition, and suffering.

...Victoria's mother is settling her daughter into a high chair, where she is the latest subject in an ongoing experiment aimed at understanding the way babies think. Hart [the researcher] hands Cheryl [the mother] a children's book and instructs her to engross herself in its pages. "Just have a conversation with me about the book," Hart tells her. "The most important thing is, do not look at Victoria." As the two women chat, Victoria looks around the room, impassive and little bored.

After a few minutes, Hart leaves the room and returns cradling a lifelike baby doll. Dramatically, Hart places it in Cheryl's arms, and tells her to cuddle the doll while continuing to ignore Victoria. "That's OK, little baby," Cheryl coos, hugging and rocking the doll. Victoria is not bored anymore. At first, she cracks her best smile, showcasing a lone stubby tooth. When that doesn't work, she begins kicking. But her mom pays her no mind. That's when Victoria loses it. Soon she's beet red and crying so hard it looks like she might spit up. Hart rushes in. "OK, we're done," she says, and takes back the doll. Cheryl goes to comfort her daughter. "I've never seen her react like that to anything," she says. Over the last 10 months, Hart has repeated the scenario hundreds of times. It's the same in nearly every case: tiny babies, overwhelmed with jealousy. Even Hart was stunned to find that infants could experience an emotion, which, until recently, was thought to be way beyond their grasp.

-- Newsweek

Freud made observations and claims about babies' conception of presence and absence, famously formulated in his analysis of the fort/da game. (We play a lot of fort/da around here, not much peekaboo.) But it turns out that babies have "object permanence" much, much earlier than previously suspected. People figure these things out by putting babies in dark rooms in front of little "stages", showing them little shows, and watching their reactions.

Each baby sees a duck on a stage. [The researcher] covers the duck, moves it across the stage and lifts the cover. Sometimes the duck is there. Other times, the duck disappears beneath a trapdoor. When they see the duck has gone missing, the babies stare intently at the empty stage, searching for it. "At 2 1/2 months," she says, "they already have the idea that the object continues to exist."

Other cool research tidbits:

Until a baby is 3 months old, he can recognize a scrambled photograph of his mother just as quickly as a photo in which everything appears in the right place. [Older babies actually lose this ability.]

. . .

At the University of Minnesota, neuroscientist Charles Nelson (now of Harvard) wanted to test how discerning infants really are. He showed a group of 6-month-old babies a photo of a chimpanzee, and gave them time to stare at it until they lost interest. They were then shown another chimp. The babies perked up and stared at the new photo. The infants easily recognized each chimp as an individual—they were fascinated by each new face. Now unless you spend a good chunk of your day hanging around the local zoo, chances are you couldn't tell the difference between a roomful of chimps at a glance. As it turned out, neither could babies just a few months older. By 9 months, those kids had lost the ability to tell chimps apart; but at the same time, they had increased their powers of observation when it came to human faces.

. . .

Michael Goldstein, a psychologist at Cornell University, gathered two groups of 8-month-olds and decked them out in overalls rigged up with wireless microphones and transmitters. One group of mothers was told to react immediately when their babies cooed or babbled, giving them big smiles and loving pats. The other group of parents was also told to smile at their kids, but randomly, unconnected to the babies' sounds. It came as no surprise that the babies who received immediate feedback babbled more and advanced quicker than those who didn't. But what interested Goldstein was the way in which the parents, without realizing it, raised the "babble bar" with their kids. "The kinds of simple sounds that get parents' attention at 4 months don't get the same reaction at 8 months," he says. "That motivates babies to experiment with different sound combinations until they find new ones that get noticed."

. . .

Kuhl put American 9-month-olds in a room with Mandarin-speaking adults, who showed them toys while talking to them. After 12 sessions, the babies had learned to detect subtle Mandarin phonetic sounds that couldn't be heard by a separate group of babies who were exposed only to English. Kuhl then repeated the experiment, but this time played the identical Mandarin —lessons to babies on video- and audiotape. That group of babies failed to learn any Mandarin. Kuhl says that without the emotional connection, the babies considered the tape recording just another background noise, like a vacuum cleaner.

But of course, this survey of research wouldn't be complete without also mentioning some of the Onion's results.

Another test, in which the infants were placed on a mound of dirt outdoors during a torrential downpour, produced similarly bleak results.

"The chicken, dog and even worm babies that we submitted to the test as a control group all had enough sense to come in from the rain or, at least, seek shelter under a leafy clump of vegetation or outcropping of rock," test supervisor Thomas Howell said. "The human babies, on the other hand, could not grasp even this incredibly basic concept, instead merely lying on the ground and making gurgling noises."

According to Howell, almost 60 percent of the infants tested in this manner eventually drowned.

Some of the babies tested were actually so stupid that they choked to death on pieces of Micronaut space toys. Others, unable to use such primitive instruments as can openers and spoons due to insufficient motor skills, simply starved to death, despite being surrounded by cabinets full of nutritious, life-giving Gerber-brand baby-food products.

Babies, the study concluded, are also too stupid to do the following: avoid getting their heads trapped in automatic car windows; use ice to alleviate the pain of burn injuries resulting from touching an open flame; master the skills required for scuba diving; and use a safety ladder to reach a window to escape from a room filled with cyanide gas.

"As a mother of four, I find these results very disheartening," Bentley told reporters. "I can honestly say that the effort I have expended trying to raise my children into intelligent beings may have been entirely wasted--a fool's dream, if you will."