Unpredictable situations helps babies learn better

Developmental scientists have known for a while that babies are born with some natural knowledge of the world. Even months-old babies have a sense of numbers and gravity. New research indicates that when this knowledge is contradicted by events, not only are babies surprised, but they try to use the occasion as a learning opportunity.

In an article published in ScienceDaily, Johns Hopkins University researchers Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson demonstrate that infant babies learn new things by negotiating the information they are born with. This means that when a baby is surprised, in that something happens which the baby does not expect, the infant learns more about the situation than from a normal predictable sequence of events.

Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, was quoted in the article, saying, “Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning. When babies are surprised, they learn much better, as though they are taking the occasion to try to figure something out about their world.”

The study included four experiments with babies up to 11 month old. It was structured to see whether the infants grasped information better about objects that challenged their expectations. If they did learn better, the researchers questioned whether these babies would also explore the surprising objects in order to understand them better.

For example, in one of the experiments, the researchers showed one group of babies a ball rolling down a ramp and stopping when it reached a wall in its path. Another group saw the ball roll down the ramp and appear to pass, unexpectedly, right through the wall. When the babies were given new information about the out-of-the-ordinary ball, the babies learned significantly better.

The infants in the group with the predictable ball, however, showed no evidence of learning. The babies who were surprised were also keen on exploring the ball, even over other new toys that nevertheless had not shown surprising behaviour. These babies also wanted to understand the strange ball. They tested its apparent ability to pass through a solid wall by banging it on the table. In another instance, when they saw a ball suspended in mid-air, they tested its ability to float untethered by dropping it to the floor.

Stahl, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences, said, “The infants’ behaviors are not merely reflexive responses to the novelty of surprising outcomes, but instead reflect deeper attempts to learn about aspects of the world that failed to accord with expectations. Infants are not only equipped with core knowledge about fundamental aspects of the world, but from early in their lives, they harness this knowledge to empower new learning.”

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