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Research Links Surprise to Learning in Babies

Katlyn Joy |19, April 2015


A new study from Johns Hopkins University finds babies have a built in expectation for how things operate in their environments, and when those expectations are defied, they learn better.

Lead researcher, Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins states, "Thirty years of research on infant cognition has shown that babies look longer when a situation appears to be surprising rather than a predictable event."

The researchers found that babies are born with innate knowledge that helps them to learn new things, but the way they learn best is when an object or event does something unexpected or surprising. Infants focus more intensely and for longer periods on objects that don't behave in a predictable manner.

For the study four experiments were conducted with children not yet verbal, of the age of 11 months. The study took place over a period of 3 1/2 years and involved 110 infants. The experiments were designed to test a baby's reaction to an object in predictable and surprising situations, to compare reactions.

Babies viewing a surprising situation had the option of either continuing to explore that object or to move on to a new object.

Stahl stated, ""Babies preferentially explored the object if it did something surprising rather than a new toy."

She and fellow researcher, Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, conducted experiments such as having a ball appear to pass through a solid wall, having an object disappear and reappear, and having a ball appear to float in mid-air. The predictable situations included a solid wall stopping a rolling ball, an object visibly supported from beneath, and an object that remained in place and did not disappear.

Researchers observed babies' reactions to these surprising situations and noted responses such as banging a ball on the table to test its solid nature after having seen it seemingly pass through a wall. When seeing something appear to float in the air, babies would then drop the item to test gravity with it. However, with the predictable events, infants showed no particular response to reveal learning taking place.

Said Stahl of the findings, "Babies can use their sophisticated prior knowledge of the world to guide what they should learn about in the future. When their expectations are violated, this might signal a special opportunity for them to learn."

It seemed when an infant's expectations were challenged, the child was engaged to learn more and demonstrated this by exploring the object more and seemingly testing the object against expected outcomes. This indicated learning was taking place in situations that surprised them.

From this research, and previous studies, it has been concluded that babies seem to have a sense of certain properties, such as object state of solidness, and object continuity. This seems to predate learning.

While the researchers have no guidance for parents on how to use this knowledge, they explain that babies seem to have predictions about their environment, which guide their learning and behavior, just as we adults do.

Besides surprise, we know that there are other tried and true methods for helping babies learn.

Respond to baby's needs. A habit of letting baby cry everything out is not ideal; instead letting baby feel emotionally secure helps build areas of baby's brain in those nurturing moments.

Play with baby through songs and responsive conversation. Combining sounds and movement help baby learn, and the language skills they glean are drawn directly from hearing rhythm, tones and rhymes. They pick up patterns in our language this way.

Make reading an interactive experience. Build baby's love of books early by making story time a fun time. Use different voices and pitch when reading aloud. Point out different objects in the illustrations so baby can begin to connect the sound of the word you are saying to a pictorial representation.

Provide baby with plenty of age-appropriate toys. Babies need toys that allow them to discover how one thing leads to another. Toys that can be placed inside each other, or stacked and then fall, or that twist, squeeze, pop, squeak or light up.

Give baby a safe exploring zone. Babies don't thrive while in a small confined space, but you need to control the boundaries for safety's sake.

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