Our Studies

How does surprise shape early learning?

In a blooming, buzzing world, it can be hard to know what to learn about at any 000_1829particular moment.  There’s simply so much going on in our dynamic, cluttered worlds—too much to attend to at once.  One way to narrow this vast learning space is to make predictions.  When the world fails to accord with what was predicted, this may be a special opportunity to learn—to revise our understanding of the world.

In this ongoing line of studies, we are asking how babies and children learn differently when the world doesn’t work the way they expect it to—when they are surprised at what they see.  By measuring what and how children explore following surprising events, and by measuring babies’learning following surprising versus unsurprising events, we can begin to understand how expectations—and violations of these expectations—scaffold cognitive change.

What are the foundations of mathematical thinking?

Linus BEANSMany of us think of math as a classroom-based subject, one which we spend years of formal education to master.  Yet research in our lab and others has revealed that the roots of this ability are already present by just a few months of age.  Before speaking their first words, babies represent approximate numbers of items in visual and auditory arrays, and can even mentally add and subtract these quantities.  In a series of ongoing studies, we are asking what other kinds of number-related computations preverbal infants can perform, and how these very basic abilities interact with later experience.  How does learning to count change, or not change, these preverbal abilities?  Do math learning disabilities stem in part from individual differences in very basic estimation abilities?  And can we design short doses of experience that can help improve children’s math performance?

How, and what, do children remember?

babies love magic tricksKeeping track of the world from moment to moment requires memory: Objects we are
watching are lost from view when they pass behind other objects, and even when we simply blink our eyes.  As adults, we seem to be able to stitch these interrupted experiences together into a coherent view of the world…but what about babies? Do babies also ready remember objects that become hidden from view?  If so, what details do they remember about them?  Do some situations encourage better memory than others?  By measuring young infants’ ability to visually track hidden objects, and measuring older babies’ ability to search for toys that we hide in simple hide-and-seek games, we are seeking to characterize how memory changes—or doesn’t change—throughout early development.

Are young children logical reasoners?

DSC_3654We often think of babies and toddlers as “irrational,”making choices that don’t always make sense to adult eyes.  Yet our lab and others have begun to ask whether, despite their sometimes unpredictable behavior, babies can reason logically through simple problems.  Consider statements like “Socrates is a man.  All men are mortal.  Therefore, Socrates is ???”  It may not take years of education, or even an understanding of what it means to be “a man”or “mortal,”to fill in the blank and complete this line of reasoning. To find out, we are testing the earliest seeds of this kind of logical reasoning using simple word games and even simpler movies, in which no language is required.  Characterizing the logical computations that are available throughout the lifespan can help us understand the primitive inferences that support human cognition.

How does making choices affect children?

We live in a world in which we’re inundated by choices: Which Starbucks drink shouldroom_toddler_looking we order?  Which podcast, out of thousands, should we download for our commute?  Although the number of choices we face has increased massively over the last several decades, the impact of these constant choices on our thoughts and emotions is only just starting to be understood. Even less understood is how choices affect children.  In an ongoing series of studies we are asking just this, measuring the extent to which making choices affects babies’ liking for the things they choose…and the things they don’t choose.  In older children, we vary the number of options children choose from, and test the extent to which having an abundance of choice versus a dearth of choice shapes how kids feel.