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Q&A: Amanda Woodward, psychologist, on the intelligence of babies

Q&A: Amanda Woodward, psychologist, on the intelligence of babies

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Psychologist Amanda Woodward works on understanding babies' minds. It turns out you can learn a lot about a three-month-old's thought process using Velcro and a mitten.

Babies are a lot smarter than most of us think. Turns out they understand the concept of intention, meaning that others have specific goals in mind when they move around a space. Babies also understand the cause and effect of something being hit. They even understand the concept of number.

We've come to understand how much babies know thanks to the hard work of researchers like Amanda Woodward, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Woodward has dedicated her life to discovering what is happening inside the minds of very young infants. She has come to understand that a baby's physical actions in the world are more important than any flash card vocabulary training or iPad application, when it comes to developing mental ability. Specifically she has studied how babies come to understand the intention of others.

We spoke with Woodward about such physical learning and its amazing impact on a baby's understanding of intention and goal-directed behavior. We also asked her to explain how scientists study a baby's mind in the first place, given that they don't communicate beyond crying and smiling.

SmartPlanet: Why is understanding the intention of others an important marker in the development of babies?

Amanda Woodward: Human beings are a social species. We live around other people, interact with other people, and our success in life depends on being able to do that well. So imagine you only thought about other people as physical bodies moving around the world, you would have very little success at interacting successfully, communicating, solving problems together. All depends on being able to understand one another’s intentions.

And for development?

Most of the things that young children learn in the first few years of life come from other people. They learn language. They learn how to be appropriate socially and culturally. They learn how to use tools. And if we look at others as physical bodies in motion, babies would have no hope of figuring out these sounds that come out of people’s mouths. If you don’t think about somebody’s communicative intentions you will have no hope about learning the meaning of language, or why is somebody using a tool like a fork or a telephone.

You’ve studied how babies begin to understand the intentions of others. How do you study babies' minds?

I have spent my career trying to figure out what’s going on in the minds of pre-linguistic infants. And it’s a fascinating puzzle. We can’t peer directly into the mind. What we need is evidence that we can use to make inferences about what’s happening in the mind. Infants don’t speak and they’re also limited in the kinds of coordinated behaviors they can perform. But they’re quite good at controlling what they look at and how long they look at things. So a number of researchers over the years, including me, have developed ways to use visual attention as a measure of what babies understand in a situation.

Meaning that if they understand it they’ll stare at it longer?

You can use babies’ patterns of attention to draw inferences of what they’ve understood.

Can you give us an example?

One method researchers use involves showing babies one event or thing again and again and again until their visual attention to it declines. So babies, like everyone, can get bored and they will look less and less each time. We use this response -- which is called habituation -- as one measure. Once babies have habituated to an event -- once they’re tired of it -- if you show them something new, they’ll look longer because now there’s something new to see.

Right. I have noticed that my four-month old daughter stares at me longer if I greet her with my wet hair wrapped in a towel on my head.

Yes. They’ll look longer if important things change. And they’ll look less long if things that they don’t think are important change.

You’ve completed a very interesting experiment involving the ability of young infants to understand others’ intentions.

Right. Younger babies don’t seem to show strong intuition about other people’s goals. But six-month olds are becoming pretty good at reaching for things. And we wondered if babies’ own experience reaching for things helps them to understand other people’s goals.

So we brought in three-month-old babies who were too young to be doing very much reaching on their own. If you hold up an interesting toy in front of a 3-month-old, they’ll flap their arms around and get very excited but have a hard time actually getting their hand onto the toy. So we decided that we would help them be able to act on objects with their hand. We put Velcro mittens on them. Pretty big mittens that had Velcro on the palm. We put the opposite side of the Velcro on toys and put the toys within reach.

The babies would look at the toy and flap their arms around. But because they had these big mittens on, the flapping allowed them to pick up the object with the mitten. Babies noticed this and found it quite exciting. Their eyes got big and their bodies got all tense. Parents would often offer to buy the mittens from us or try to sneak the mittens in the diaper bag.

That is exciting for babies. To see that they had some control.

Yes. And we found that they soon began to organize in how they used the mittens. Over the course of the laboratory visit they started to aim a swipe since they understood that they could pick things up with the mitten.

After this training experience we moved the babies into a testing room to see if they could recognize other people’s actions as goal-directed. What we found is that babies who had engaged in training with the mittens responded like older babies. They looked a long time when watching the experimenter do something surprising and novel -- [i.e., like moving to reach for a toy but then not picking it up.]  So this experience with  using the mittens actually helped these three-month-old babies understand another person’s actions as goal-directed. Meaning, the babies had developed a sense of others' goal-directed movements. [When those goals changed, the baby saw it as new and therefore looked longer.]

So those babies that did not use the velcro mittens did not recognize a change in the experimenter's actions?

Right. Those who never used the velcro mittens and did not gain an understanding of cause and effect themselves, did not recognize a change in the experimenter's goals.

Meaning that the babies are using their own actions to understand someone else’s actions?

Yes. This suggests that using the mittens actually helped these three-month-old babies understand another person’s actions as goal directed.

So active reaching leads to understanding of observed goals, but could the babies just watch someone swiping at the toys?

We designed another study where babies either got to engage in active experience using the mittens themselves or they watched somebody else use the mittens. We found just watching the show isn’t enough, they needed to move the mittens themselves to understand actions as goal-directed. The way that they learn is by engaging in physical interaction with the world.

How smart are babies?

Babies are very smart. Over the past twenty of 30 years, we’ve gained a lot of evidence that young infants are smart about a number of things.

For example, they know that objects continue to exist when they pass out of view for a moment. They expect an object to move if it is hit by another object. They also keep track of numbers. If they see three blocks, they remember that there were three of them, not two or four.

So what is the best way to teach and guide young infants?

Often people think that the best way to support those early intellectual abilities is to do something that feels like school with a baby, such as use flash cards or an iPad app where you’re learning the names for things. But in fact, the actions that babies engage with, just crawling around on the floor playing with blocks, or playing with wooden spoons, or whatever happens to be there are probably more informative.

When you say ‘more informative,’ does it go beyond learning the intention of others?

Sure. Imagine a baby playing with a block on the floor. They’re learning about their own action, how to reach for things, how to do complicated actions if something’s out of reach, how to maybe use a stick to pull it within reach.

They learn how blocks look when you turn them around and study each side of them, what the different weights of blocks feel like, and how many blocks there might be. If they’re engaging all of that information, they’re prepared to take it up, they’re ready to reason about physics, and number, and intentions.

Just watching someone else do all this is not going to offer them anything. In other words, yet another reason not to plop them in front of the television or iPad.

Watching TV is probably a terrible way to teach a baby anything. So there’s something about making the event happen yourself that is much more informative for infants.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure