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Infant gaze shows researcher what babies are thinking

What are babies born knowing?

One researcher has abandoned the conventional study of adult minds in the search to understand human cognition, finding them too cluttered and already full of ideas. Instead, she is refining the art of studying something simpler: babies.

Elizabeth Spelke, a psychology professor and researcher of the foundations of human knowledge at Harvard, has developed the theory of using the infant gaze as a descriptor of the activities in the infant mind, reports The New York Times.

For instance, according to Spelke's research, babies — sometimes a week or two old — will spend more time looking at a scene that does not meet their expectations, such as if an object formerly present is suddenly missing or if one blue cartoon in a show is jumping with the yellow cartoons, while all the other blues are sliding.

Her research indicates infants and toddlers intuitively understand some of the following concepts:

Arithmetic — In one study, a 2-year-old looked around for missing bunny finger puppets after a researcher initially displayed a set number and then left a few in a box.

Objects — When an ostensibly solid rod moving back and forth behind an object is shown to be made up of two pieces instead, a baby's face will register surprise. “The visual system comes equipped to partition a scene into functional units we need to know about for survival,” said Phil Kellman, Spelke's first graduate student.

Geometry — When finding their way around, babies rely on geometry — a short wall versus a tall wall; a rectangular room versus a square room. However, surprisingly, Spelke found that babies do not develop the ability to navigate through features such as color until 5 or 6 years old. “That was a deep surprise to me,” Dr. Spelke said. “My intuition was, a little kid would never make the mistake of ignoring information like the color of a wall.”

Spelke and her associates are currently studying the babies' social intelligence. One study showed babies stared longer at subjects who had accents similar to ones with which they were familiar. For instance, an American baby born in Texas will stare longer at someone speaking English rather than French, and someone with a Texan accent than someone from, say, the East coast. They are also studying to see whether babies understand social norms, aberrant behavior and whether or not an object is animate.