Experimenting with Babies

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There are several books in the market educating parents on the curious lives of infants and toddlers. When my first child was born, the hospital handed us a free copy of Your Baby’s First Year by S. P. Shelov. It exemplifies the category of books every new parent should read diligently and few, save those Emperor penguin parents, manage to read cover-to-cover.

Not to undermine the importance of technical knowledge on infant care, another category of books are often more engaging in parental education. These books are not instruction manuals on babies, but scientific readings on their behavior. Instead of asking, “How to deal with your baby?” these books ask the far more interesting question, “How is the baby dealing with your world?” How does a mind form? What is the baby-mind perceiving? What expectations is it projecting onto that perceived surrounding? What surprises a baby?  Between days spent fretting over the subtleties of a baby’s whine, it is perhaps amazement and curiosity which allows parents to enjoy one of the greatest shows of this world. I shall venture to claim that curiosity is the singular eligibility for parenthood.

There are a few excellent books in this latter category. Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom is perhaps preeminent. Have you ever wondered whether babies are born with a notion of three dimensional space, flow of time, solidity and cohesion of objects? Or do then learn such properties by observing the material world? Neuroscientists, Developmental and Cognitive Psychologists have raised such questions and  have devised ingenuous experiments, measuring attention by the duration of baby’s gaze, in arriving at often surprising conclusions. A baby develops ocular control and ability to fixate gaze on moving objects rather early on (three months) though depth perception develops later (six months). Two other books in this category that come to mind are, The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik and What’s Going on in There? by Lisa Eliot. Lisa Eliot’s lucid book makes developmental neuroscience of babies highly accessible to anyone.

Experimenting with Babies is a rather unique book. Instead of presenting the research on early child development in the typical style of a popular science book, it presents an experiment (for each chapter) which parents can conduct on their babies, and thereby directly participate in the scientific process. All the experiments are from original research papers and is cited in the references. The experiments are sometimes modified to suit a home scientist with limited resources. Each chapter is divided into four sections: The Experiment, The Hypothesis, The Research and The Takeaway. The experiment is described, an hypothesis of what result to expect is presented, what researchers found is explained, and what we learn about infants in the process is finally summarized. It is an remarkably effective format for two reasons: firstly, reading the book is a breeze even with a screeching infant or toddler in a football-hold! Secondly, the format reiterates the way science is done. A scientist first reviews existing knowledge and comes up with a new and interesting question. A hypothesis is formed on what the answer might be. A feasible experiment is then planned to test the hypothesis unambiguously; the experiment should be able to corroborate or falsify the hypothesis. The experimental results are then assessed in the light of newly gained knowledge. As a result, fresh questions are often proposed.

The age group for each experiment is mentioned under the chapter title, along with the experiment’s complexity and the research area. The chapters are chronological in age group, starting with 0-3 months and ending with 24 months. There are 50 experiments in total. Most of the experiments are rather simple to perform, and in reading the book I discovered that without knowledge of the research I had performed some of them spontaneously on my one year old over the past year. And if you have a baby, I can assure you that you too have conducted some of these experiments, perhaps without your knowledge.

For example, take Chapter 26 named Mirror, Mirror. Every parent has probably been amused by how a baby interacts with a mirror and how it changes with age. At a very early age of 3 months babies already show interest in their reflection. At around the time they begin to crawl (my daughter started shakily at around six months) they are quite fascinated by their reflection. My daughter would coo at the mirror and touch it and smile back in wonder, and her interest only grew stronger when she began walking at ten months. However, babies don’t appear to recognize their reflection as their own image, the book informs, apparently until around 14-22 months. I would touch my babies hair while she was looking at her reflection and take my finger away the moment she turned around to look at me, hoping to inspire her to look at herself in the mirror and investigate. She would look at my reflection in the mirror and smile but did she really grasp the idea of her own reflection? The experiment suggested in the book is to put a smudge of makeup on the baby’s nose and see at what age they reach for their own nose instead of the their reflection. This is a well-known test, however, the book does not point out the many criticisms of the mirror test. Few animals pass the test, but there are problems of interpreting the results in determining self-recognition. One of the shortcomings of Experimenting with Babies is in not always presenting the scientific debate surrounding many of these tests or studies, though the author has made an attempt in several chapters.

Another observation you may have made as a parent is how the motor skills/dexterity of those little hands develop over the months. Hand-eye coordination is very poor early on. Chapter 28 suggests a curious little experiment. Which hand does a baby offer to grab a toy which is rotation either clockwise or counter-clockwise? I missed this experiment because it is rather age sensitive. Around 6 months and 10 months the baby has a handedness preference for a clockwise or a counterclockwise rotation toy. However, around 8 months right hand is preferred, apparently. The fast pace at which motor skills develop in this early months allows for different behavioral outcomes in the three age groups. I leave it to the reader to find the explanation in the book. There are several other chapters exploring motor skills, ranging from adjusting grasp to size of objects (chapter 25) to walking pattern of toddlers (chapter 39). An index classifies the chapters by the research areas and another index by the complexity of the experiment.

Picking out a single experiment as a favorite from the book does the book injustice, but the one enjoyed a lot is perhaps the Goldilocks Effect. In this experiment you hide toys behind cardboard stands and reveal the toys in simple to complex sequence or completely random sequence. Babies become attentive to the sudden appearance of objects only beyond a certain age. In the case of my daughter, I routinely hid a toy in front of her by a sleight of hand or revealed it from under a blanket, hoping she would notice and display gestures of searching or surprise respectively, appropriate to her age. She began doing so consistently only around the age of six to seven months. The Goldilocks experiment emphasizes that babies show both a “familiarity” and “novelty bias” in their attention. Too complex a pattern of presentation and their attention wanes. Too simple, and it is rather boring. This is also the reason that peek-a-boo games need to become increasingly sophisticated as the baby grows up.

I wish the book did not stop at 24 months and extended into later years of child development. Particularly exciting would be experiments done to study the development of morality in children—Rebecca Saxe’s work comes to mind.

In summary, this 200 page book will inform you more about the cognitive world of your child and keep you far more engaged with that little scientist compared to many other books on the first two-years of child development. So read it.

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