Harvard Lab Uses Infants' Gazes to Track Cognitive Development

An article in The New York Times profiles an innovative research technique in practice in Harvard University's psychology department, which is giving scientists new ways of understanding how--and when--infants learn and develop social and cognitive skills.

Elizabeth S. Spelke is a professor of psychology founded the Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies to measure what infants' gazes tell us about how their brains are working and growing. What Spelke and her colleagues learn has implications for both child development and adult psychology.

Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they're cute but because they're root. "I've always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind," she said, "and why we're good at some tasks and bad at others."

But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, "too stuffed full of facts" to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.

Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. "More than any scientist I know, Liz combines theoretical acumen with experimental genius," Dr. [Susan] Carey, [a co-founder of the lab] said. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: "Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition."

The article goes on to describe some of the things Spelke has discovered about infant brains, including that they babies expect physical objects to remain consistent, can understand the basics of "more" and "less," and have no ability to orient themselves based on landmarks or physical cues.

Image: Baby with flash card, via Shutterstock.

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