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What Babies Know

What Babies Know

Emily told me about a New York Times' article on "what babies know," so I looked it up yesterday. Fascinating stuff with big implications for people who write children's books! These researchers showed babies a "puppet show" where a red ball is moving up a hill. A yellow square shows up and assists it up the hill, but a green triangle appears and pushes it down. (All the shapes have faces, which has turned out to be an important part of getting babies involved in socialization issues; they lose interest without them.) After watching, the babies are offered each shape, and they prefer the "nice" shape to the "mean" one overwhelmingly – those under six months by looking at it longer, older babies by reaching for it. (In case you're thinking babies might prefer a particular color or shape, they changed those up and the results were the same.)

We can no longer assume those big eyes and rounded foreheads house empty space – or visions of sugarplums dancing. Those babies are dealing with complicated issues like right and wrong. By the way, they can also "do math." When one Mickey Mouse doll is shown on an empty stage, then joined by another, babies stare longer if they are subsequently shown one doll or three dolls instead of the "expected" two.

That innocent wide-eyed look is deceptive. My friend Beth points out that the word for that appealing combination of features look babies have is "neoteny," which usually refers mostly to the retention of these characteristics in adults. It's why film-makers make aliens with big heads and low, wide apart eyes. (And don't you just want to force-feed a cupcake to those poor starved models with the huge heads?)

With infants, eyes and cries are all we've got. Many parents learn to "read" cries to determine hunger, pain, or fatigue. But it's the eyes that show the more positive emotions I love – absolute adoration of whoever's feeding them, downcast embarrassment for the person making a fool of himself trying to get a smile, and wicked bemusement when they're "in on the joke." I've learned never to sell my students short; they've often come through when I least expected it. Looks like we owe babies the same benefit of the doubt.

Posted in May, 2010

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