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How Do Babies Learn? Two Studies Offer New Insight

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Ever gazed into your baby's eyes and wondered what in the world is going on inside her head? Researchers have done the same, and thanks to two new studies, we may have some answers.

For starters, our babies' minds are even more incredible than we thought. To wit, children as young as 2 days old are processing language like adults do, a new study has found. That's because like adults, they use the first and last syllables (called word edges) to recognize words and also determine when a new word begins based on brief pauses in between syllables.

Scientists at the International School of Advanced Studies, a research institution based in Italy, exposed babies to a string of six syllables. Then they switched the positions of two of the syllables, says Perrine Brusini, one of the study's authors. "When we switched the edge syllables, the newborns' brain responded to the change, but when we switched the two syllables in the middle, they did not respond to the change," he explains. "This suggests that the newborns better encoded the syllables at the edges of the sequence."

Likewise, the newborns also noticed the 25 millisecond pause between two middle syllables—a pause that's "almost imperceptible." Even though it was brief, the quiet was enough for the babies to realize the syllables as two separate words.

But that's not all: Another exciting study discovered that the region of the brain that oversees visual processing is enlisted when a baby sees something but also when she expects to see something, say a team of researchers from Princeton University, the University of Rochester, and the University of South Carolina. Previously, scientists thought only adult brains were capable of such sophisticated work.

To reach that conclusion, the team exposed two groups of infants (ages 5 to 7 months) to a pattern and a sound (like a honk from a horn). Then they showed one of those groups a picture of a red smiley face. After a minute, the researchers stopped showing them picture of the smiley face.

They saw that although the babies were no longer seeing the smiley face, there was still activity in the visual part of the brain. The expectation that it would appear was enough to trigger it. "We show that in situations of learning and situations of expectations, babies are in fact able to really quickly use their experience to shift the ways different areas of their brain respond to the environment," said Lauren Emberson, one of the researchers.

The findings, published online June 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could influence the way we perceive and approach infant learning, says Janet Werker, a professor and Canada research chair in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies the roots of language acquisition. (She was not involved with this study.) "This work thus has the potential to transform future research on infant learning to focus not on just what infants can learn, but to look at learning as a more active process, focusing more on how learning begets subsequent learning," she says.

Though more questions remain about the inner workings of our kiddos' brains, studies like these draw back the curtain a bit and reveal just how amazing our babies really are.

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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