It may not seem like your baby is much of a brainiac, but studies show that infants ware born with many impressive cognitive skills already in place. Infants possess a “skeletal” structure of knowledge in things like the basic physical properties of objects, basic arithmetic, understanding intentions or intentionality, the law of physical causality (one action causes another), and the distinction between animate and inanimate objects. (Cole, 2003) As the following research shows, that little bundle of pooping, crying joy is a lot smarter than you might think.
Babies show a basic comprehension of patterns
Brain scans show that 2- and 3-day-old infants can perceive musical patterns and even take notice when a drummer misses a beat. This study, published in the January 27, 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the 14 babies it studied had similar patterns of electrical brain activity when following a beat as did 14 adults in the study. Like any listener, they expected the drummer to continue the pattern and seemed surprised when it didn’t happen. This is something chimpanzees and bonobos aren’t able to do, and is probably a consequence of your baby’s much more sophisticated language areas. (Szabo, 1-27-2009)
Babies have basic mathematical capabilities
Believe it or not, your baby can do basic math. Veronique Izard, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, showed that children enter the world with a head for numbers. She and her colleagues played cooing sounds to babies, with varying numbers of sounds in each trial. For example, they might play either 4 or 8 cooing sounds. The babies were then shown a set of shapes on a computer screen as the scientists tracked their gaze and measured how long they stared at each one. Newborns consistently looked longer at the screen when the number of shapes matched the number of sounds they had just heard, indicating they were associating 4 sounds with 4 shapes (as opposed to 8 or 12).
Research such as this shows newborns come into the world already possessing a basic understanding of numbers. (Zimmer, 2009) As Michael Cole states, “Current research leaves no doubt that by the middle of the first year of life, more than a year before they will be able to engage in a simple conversation, babies are able to respond to numerosity and to count small arrays of objects (Gallistel & Gelman, 1992; Klein & Starkey, 1987; Wynn, 1992).” (Cole, 2003, p. 209)
Research has found that infants just a few months old can comprehend relative size and quantity. If they see five objects being hidden behind a screen and then another five added to the first set, they express surprise if there are only 5 there when the screen is removed. (Stix, 2011)
Other experiments have shown that a 6-month-old baby can reliably distinguish between numbers that differ by as little as a factor of two (like 4 and 8). By 9 months the ratio has dropped to 1.5 (8 and 12 for example). By adulthood the ratio is just 10 to 15 percent. (Zimmer, 2009)
Babies observe and make predictions about their world
Babies demonstrate a knowledge of probabilities, and studies show that they utilize these skills to make predictions about their world. In a 2008 study, Fei Xu of the University of California-Berkeley showed 8-month-old babies a box full of mixed up ping-pong balls…for instance, 80% of them white and 20% which were red. The experimenter would then take out five balls, seemingly at random. The babies were more surprised (that is, they looked longer and more intently) when the experimenter pulled out 4 red balls and one white one out of the box – an improbable outcome – than when she pulled out four white balls and a red one. (Gopnik, 2010)
Another study by Fei Xu, done in tandem with Stephanie Denison, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, demonstrated that infants use these predictive skills to navigate their world. In the study, they conducted experiments involving 72 infants who ranged in age from 10 months to 12 months. Babies were first tested to see if they showed a preference for either a shiny pink lollipop or a black one. They were then shown 2 jars, one with a greater proportion of the color they liked, the other the opposite. Researchers then covered the jars, took a lollipop out of each jar and covered the individual lollipop with a cup. Infants chose the cup most likely to contain their preference about 80% of the time, far beyond mere chance. “This shows us that infants can make a prediction about probability,” Dr. Denison says. “They can also guide their own behaviors and navigate their own world.” (Reddy, 2-12-2013)
The concept of object permanence in babies
Babies should show a mastery of object permanence toward the end of the first year, meaning that a child grows confident in the knowledge that people and things continue to exist even when you can’t see them. By 8 or 9 months a baby will begin to remember and possess awareness of an object even when it’s out of sight. For example, if you put a pillow over her favorite rattle while she’s watching, she’ll lift it up to find it. Babies may also look around corners to find the source of a noise, especially if it’s an important person making that noise.
However, I personally think that some degree of object permanence (at least in regards to people) emerges much sooner, and suspect this is an area where scientists simply haven’t thought up the right way to test what an infant understands. After all, by 3-6 months of age most babies have formed reliable attachments to their caregivers. This is at odds with the idea that they lack person permanence. Babies are routinely brought to day care, parents go to bed or walk into the other room, and the parent-child bond continues unabated and starts right back up again whenever that person returns. Young infants will, however, show distress if a primary caretaker is absent for an unusually extended period of time. This suggests some intuitive understanding that people aren’t permanently gone just because they aren’t in sight.