Yue Zhang of Texas A&M University’s student newspaper The Battalion reports that for more than 10 years, researchers at TAMU have been trying to answer a not-so-simple question of cognition: “what is the world like through the eyes of an infant?”
That’s the focus of research at Texas A&M’s Infant Cognition Lab (ICL) where studies are conducted on the nature and development of infants’ knowledge of objects, and how infants perceive, interpret and use incoming information. An abstract on the ICL Website notes that its researchers are interested in the type of information infants represent about objects, how this changes during the first year, and what factors contribute to changes in knowledge. The kinds of questions that they ask in their research include: What object knowledge do infants possess at birth or soon after? What knowledge is acquired during the first year of life? What kinds of experiences are important for learning about objects?
Ms. Zhang cites Texas A&M professor of psychology and Director of the Infant Cognition Lab Teresa Wilcox noting that: “Most of our research is focusing on infants’ ability to individuate objects and the ability to trace objects through space and time. For example, a ball rolls behind the couch and comes out on the other side… when you see it again you have to decide whether it is the same ball as before or whether it is a different ball.”
One question fundamental to understanding human cognition, is how to conceptualize the nature and development of early knowledge. Research conducted in the Infant Cognition Lab focuses on object knowledge, the aspects of this knowledge that infants possess very early and those that are acquired more gradually, and the mechanisms that support knowledge acquisition during the first year. The physical world is a complex multimodal environment and there are many factors that can influence the way in which infants perceive, interpret, and use incoming information. Within this context the ICL researchers have studied the role of categorization, comparison, multimodal processing, and postural support on object representation and knowledge in infants.
By capturing what a newborn baby understands about rattles, balls, pots and pans, blocks, and stuffed animals, and how that knowledge grows during the next many months, researchers can begin to know how a baby’s brain matures over time. The outcome of this process determines how infants perceive, think about, and act on objects and forms the basis for more complex cognitive processing. Ultimately, as parents understand how babies learn, they can enhance their child’s learning capabilities earlier in their young lives.
Babies are continuously learning about their world, and much of this learning takes place in the presence of others. Parents and caretakers often facilitate learning during day-to-day interactions with their infants using everyday objects. Hence, one area of the Infant Cognition Lab’s research focuses on how babies learn within the context of the social world. Current results indicate that infants are more likely to learn when a parent, as compared to an unfamiliar adult, demonstrates the value of attending to an object’s color.
Another project examines infant-parent interactions during a free play setting. In these studies we are investigating the ways in which parents guide infants’ object exploration in a free play situation, the extent to which this influences the type of information that infants gain about objects, and the degree to which the nature of the parent-infant relationship influences this process. The main goal of this work is to identify components of the social context that are particularly effective in facilitating knowledge acquisition in infants.
One important component of social interaction is using the emotional expressions of others to guide behavior. When faced with a new situation, infants often use their parents affect to guide their appraisal of the situation and to choose their own behavioral responses. For example, if a parent displays a positive emotion in a new situation (i.e. smiles and seems relaxed), then his or her infant will most likely show a similar response. Consequently, an area of the ICL’s research focuses on emotional communication between adults and infants. In one project, infants are presented with the opportunity to play with toys that they have never seen before. First, however, a parent or an unfamiliar adult directs a positive, disgust, fearful, or a neutral emotion and dialogue towards different toys. Then, the infants are allowed to crawl to the toys and pick one for play. By observing which object the infant chooses, and the length of time it takes them to choose, the researchers can learn more about how an adult’s expressed emotion influences an infant’s behavior and guides the kinds of experiences the infant has with toys.
Yet another component of this work investigates infants’ emerging capacity to map one object-related event representation onto another. A number of factors, including complexity of the event to be mapped, an infant’s ability to extract the simple structure of the event, and the kind of information that must be mapped, can influence event-mapping. In addition, the team have identified individual and group differences in event-mapping abilities, and are currently using eye tracking technology to identify specific processes that underlie the differences observed.
By uncovering the kinds of experiences that are important for learning about objects, Dr. Wilcox and her graduate student research team hope to find more specific kinds of experiences that infants need in order to learn. The team gathers information about how babies’ learn through two techniques: intermodal processing and object individuation. Intermodal processing explores the baby’s ability to interpret information gathered from two different senses. Specifically, if an infant touches an object but can’t see it, does the baby remember information about the size later? Or does seeing and touching an object at the same time enhance baby’s ability to learn and understand?
The kinds of questions the ICL staff ask in their research include: What object knowledge do infants possess at birth or soon after? What factors contribute to changes in knowledge? What knowledge is acquired during the first year of life? What kinds of experiences are important for learning about objects?
Traditionally, the lab has relied on violation-of-expectation (VOE) methods to study object individuation in infancy. In VOE studies, infants’ duration of looking to an event is measured. Infants generally look longer at events they find surprising or unexpected. Using this method the researchers can identify the kinds of object information to which infants attend, expectations that infants hold for objects as they move about in the world, and how this changes with age.
Dr. Wilcox notes that over the past few decades, a vast amount of research indicates that infants younger than eight months will not search under a cloth/cover or behind a rigid screen for a hidden object. More recently, evidence suggests that infants understand that the object exists even when hidden. “Given this new evidence, we hypothesized that infants would search for objects if the task was made much easier. Thus, we constructed a screen using a wooden frame with layers of fringe attached,” Dr. Wilcox explains. She hid objects behind the screen and the infants were able to search for the hidden object. With this easier task, the subjects didn’t need to grasp and remove a cloth; but only to put their hand through the fringe.
“Our research has revealed fascinating and significant changes in an infant’s capacity to individuate objects during their first year, including learning mechanisms, such as color, that support these changes,” Dr. Wilcox says.
“When an infant plays with a green object that pounds a nail, versus a red object that scoops and pours salt, infants will encode this information and use the experience to later predict the use of the object.”
In addition to observing behavioral methods, Dr. Wilcox and her researchers assess the neural basis of object individuation using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), a non-invasive optical imaging technique that is sensitive to changes in blood flow. “We place an optode that emits near-infrared light on the infant’s head and then record the amount of light that is refracted,” she explains. In most cases, when a neural area is activated, there is an increase in blood flow to that area. For that reason, changes in the amount of light refracted are taken as an indicator of neural activation.
“In our lab we found, and other people found it too, that there are maybe a number of ways to go about learning things,” Dr. Wilcox told the Battalion’s Ms. Zhang. “And if you give babies a number of different kinds of experiences and pay attention to … it is a matter of you knowing your baby, what they find engaging, and providing a supportive environment as you can.”
Dr. Wilcox’s research endeavors are funded primarily by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
A gallery of Infant Cognition Lab. photos can be found here: