New & Now

Baby Genius: Research suggests the slate may not be blank.

IN HIS Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the 17th century philosopher John Locke argued that, at birth, our minds exist as a blank slate, a tabula rasa upon which sensory experiences are rapidly inscribed. According to Locke, it is only through the accumulation of these physical sensations, and the gradual acquisition of the skills necessary to reflect upon them, that we develop the forms of understanding that define our species.

This enormously influential form of empiricism — the idea that no knowledge is instinctive and all must be acquired — reflects a notion that stretches back to Aristotle. But its days, according to an MU researcher, may be numbered.

A recent study based on an exhaustive review of relevant scientific literature suggests that newborn brains do, in fact, arrive pre-loaded with a type of cognitive software researchers call “intuitive physics,” the innate ability to discern certain fundamental truths about the world.

“We believe that infants are born with expectations about the objects around them, even though that knowledge is a skill that’s never been taught,” says Kristy vanMarle, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at MU. “As the child develops, this knowledge is refined and eventually leads to the abilities we use as adults.”

VanMarle and the study’s coauthor, Northwestern University Associate Professor Susan Hespos, found that infants as young as two months — the earliest age at which testing can occur — understand that unsupported objects will fall and that hidden objects do not cease to exist. Testing also has shown that 5-month-old infants have an expectation that non-cohesive substances like sand or water are not solid.

“We believe that infants are born with the ability to form expectations, and they use these expectations basically to predict the future,” vanMarle said. “Intuitive physics includes skills that adults use all the time. For example, when a glass of milk falls off the table, a person might try to catch the cup but they are not likely to try to catch the milk that spills out.”

Reaching for the cup, in other words, happens independently of any reasoned attempt to make sense of the situation. VanMarle and Hespos say infants share aspects of this automatic understanding of the world around them, including an ability to “predict the behavior of objects and substances with which they interact.”

The researchers caution that the finding does not support the efficacy of various “infant brain development” products and schemes. “Despite the intuitive physics knowledge, a parent probably cannot do much to ‘get their child ahead’ at the infant stage,” says vanMarle. But might an exhausted parent at least be excused from yet another round of “Itsy, Bitsy Spider?” Not a chance, says vanMarle.

“Natural interaction with the child, such as talking to him or her, playing peek-a-boo and allowing him or her to handle safe objects, is the best method for child development,” she says. “Natural interaction with the parent and objects in the world gives the child all the input that evolution has prepared the child to seek, accept and use to develop intuitive physics.”

The study was published in the January 2012 issue of WIREs Cognitive Science.

Infant Intellect: They know more than you think. Illustration by Jon Reinfurt.

INFANT INTELLECT: They know more than you think.
Illustraton by Jon Reinfurt.

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