Babies’ ability to learn new and life-changing skills quickly is extremely important for their overall development. How they are able to do this is a question that has intrigued psychologists for years. According to new research from Penn State University, babies’ brains may have been preparing for these new skills long before they are observed using them.
The study was published in Child Development, and supports long-standing but untested beliefs about infant development. Famous child psychologist Jean Piaget previously theorized that young children develop in bursts, rather than consistently over time. Using new modeling methods, Penn State professor of psychology Koraly Perez-Edgar was able to examine how behavioral development is related to growth in brain activity.
In a study involving 28 six-month-old infants over a seven-month period, the researchers had the subjects participate in a cognitive “a-not-b” task that measured their understanding of object permanence. This task involved hiding a toy in front of the infant and seeing if they were able to retrieve it.
“How babies perform in this task tells us a lot about their development because it’s a coordination of multiple skills,” says Leigha MacNeill, a graduate student in psychology at Penn State. “They have to remember where the ball was moved, which is working memory. They have to know an object exists even though it’s out of sight, and they need to track objects moving in space from one place to another. All of this also required them to pay attention. So there’s a lot going on.”
Along with this task, the infants’ EEG was measured on each visit – with electrodes measuring electrical activity in different regions of the brain. Data analysis showed that an infant’s performance on the a-not-b task developed in bursts, usually with big spikes around seven and eleven months. However, results showed that EEG power grew steadily throughout the seven months.
“Psychologists have been suggesting that while on the surface development looks like these quick bursts, underneath there may be very continuous, slowly developing mechanisms that one day look like they popped out of nowhere,” Perez-Edgar explains. “Like with kids learning to talk, it looks like they learn all these words overnight, but they’ve been listening and thinking and processing for a long time.”
Along with studying infants’ behavioral development, the study served to observe what is also happening in their brains during this important growth period.