May 24

The Wonder of Babies

Dana E. Friedman, Ed.D., EYI President

There is nothing more intense than a baby’s stare.  It is fascinating to consider what they might be thinking about.  It turns out that a professor at Harvard, Elizabeth Spelke, has for 30 years been helping us understand just that.  Her interest in babies is rooted in her quest to understand human cognition, i.e., why we are good at some things and not others.  She feels the adult mind is far too complicated to make sense of it so she found a way to go “straight to the source and consult the recently born” as the April 30, 2012 New York Times article about her claimed. 

Professor Spelke has been a pioneer in discerning how infants learn about objects and numbers.  She is credited with developing the infant gaze idea which her colleagues claim radically changed our view of infant cognition. This process involved measuring how long babies stare at something.  Some of the things she has learned from her research about babies under the age of 1:

  • Babies know what an object is – that if you grab it, all parts will move as one discrete physical unit.
  • They know that objects can’t go through solid boundaries.
  • Babies can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and lesser amounts. For instance, if you show an infant four dots or twelve dots, they will match each number to an accompanying sound, looking longer at the four dots when they hear four sounds than when they hear twelve sounds.

 Most of Dr. Spelke’s research has involved giving babies objects to see how they perceive and use them.  She now proclaims, “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people.”

Once again, when it comes to the developing mind, relationships to people make all the difference in the world.  Babies seem to crave what they need most – human connection.  It is bittersweet that we needed 30 years of research to figure it out.  The hard part is incorporating that essential ingredient into our parenting and early childhood programs.

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