“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
At the Early Learning Project we have UNSW undergraduates come and help out with our research projects as part of an internship scheme. One of our interns, Georgia, has just finished the third year of her bachelor of psychology at UNSW. Throughout the third year of her degree she has been helping out with our intergenerational study so I caught up with her to find out more about the research she’s been doing.
Tell me about the research project you’ve been doing this year
My research was an intergenerational study with local preschoolers and dementia patients at a nursing home. Once a week the children from the preschool go and have a play session with the residents over the course of 6 months. We wanted to find out if going to visit the residents would have an effect on the children’s social and emotional development.
How did you do this?
We ran several tasks with the kids that measure their emotional and social development before they started going to see the residents. After the 6 month period we had them perform the same tasks again to see if they improved. Naturally as the children grow older they do better on the tasks that we set them, so a second group of children from the centre who didn’t taken part in the intergenerational program do the same tasks and act as the control group . In this way we can see how much of the improvement in children’s socio-emotional skillsis due to just getting older and how much is due to spending time with the residents. We are currently still doing the last few tasks with the children so we don’t have any results yet
Why did you decide to take part in this project?
I wanted to do a developmental psychology project because I’ve always loved working with kids. I took a developmental psychology course last year and loved it, so I decided to pursue it on Jenny’s internship program. When I joined the program Jenny proposed the study for me to help out with. There have been some other research that has shown programs like this improve the dementia patient’s engagement and mood compared to a normal activities like reading and reminiscing, but there has not been much research into how these programs might benefit the children’s development, which is why I found it so interesting.
What were the best and most difficult things about this project?
The most difficult part was the time commitment. It takes about half an hour to finish all the tasks with each child, so I had to go to the preschool a lot, as well as balancing all of this with uni and work. The best thing was learning how to carry out a range of tasks to measure the children’s social and emotional abilities, and also being able to conduct observational research on the residents.
What are you planning on doing next?
Once we’ve finished testing the kids I’m going to analyse the results and write up the research for publication. I’m hoping to get into the honours program next year to carry on with developmental research, and after I finish my thesis I’d like to go on to do a clinical masters.
What are your plans for this summer?
I work at IKEA so I will continue to work there while I’m writing up my research. I’m also planning on going away down south to Bateman’s Bay. I haven’t had a lot of free time this year so I’m going to catch up with my friends and walk my dog.
It is perhaps now common knowledge that babies are born with with the ability to recognise their mother’s voice, however, in the early 1980s this was not the case. Thanks to Tony DeCasper, who sadly passed away in July this year aged 75, we now have a much greater understanding of what babies learn before they are even born. Throughout his scientific career he performed groundbreaking research into prenatal experiences and how they affect future development. His research found that not only do newborn infants prefer the sound of their mother’s voice to other female voices, they will also actively work to produce the sound of their mother’s voice over another voice. He also performed the famous “The-Cat-in-the-Hat” studies, which provided the first direct evidence that infants form memories before they are even born.
Research on newborn infants is much more difficult than testing older infants and adults. In studies with older babies, we can find out what they have learned and which stimulus they prefer by measuring where they look or which object they reach for. Such techniques, however, cannot be used with newborn infants because they do not have the necessary motor skills. DeCasper’s early research focused on learning in animal models and when he decided to change his research participants from pigeons to newborns, he had to come up with a novel way to measure what babies’ might have learned before they were born. His technique, called high amplitude sucking, capitalises on a reflex that babies are all born with, that is to suck things that are put into their mouth. In high amplitude sucking studies, babies are given a dummy that is connected to a pressure monitor. The researchers play different sounds to the baby through special headphones and measure how fast they sucking on the dummy.
In his original research on newborn infants, babies younger than 3 days old learned how they could “choose” between two different recordings by changing how quickly they sucked on the dummy. One of the recordings was their mother’s voice, while the other was the voice of an unfamiliar woman. Amazingly, the babies chose to hear their own mother’s voice over another female voice, indicating they prefer listening to the familiar sound of their mum.
These results suggested that infants learn about the sound of their mum’s voice in the womb and recognise it after they are born, but do they simply remember what she sounds like, or perhaps are they listening and learning about what she says too? To test this idea, DeCasper designed the now famous“The-Cat-in-the-Hat” studies. In these studies, mums were asked to read Dr. Seuss’s book “The Cat-in-the-Hat” to their baby in the 6 weeks prior to birth. When tested using the high amplitude sucking procedure shortly after birth, babies preferred to listen to “The-Cat-in-the-Hat” over a different book that they had not heard before, even when it was read to them by a stranger. This extraordinary research provided the first direct experimental evidence that babies in the womb are learning about not only just the characteristics of their mother’s voice, but the content too.
Next time you call out to tell your child it’s time to go home don’t forget they learnt to recognise the sound of your voice before they were born, and we only know this thanks to the amazing work by Tony DeCasper.
If you have ever sat a baby in front of a mirror, you know that they tend to get pretty excited and often make faces, talk to, and poke at their reflection in the glass. The question is, do they understand that they are looking at a reflection of their own image? Early developmental research used a “mirror test” to measure self recognition. In this task, researchers put a red spot on the baby’s nose and then code their reactions when they are placed in front of a mirror. The logic is if the baby understands that the baby they are looking at in the mirror is themselves, they will try and rub the spot off their nose. You can try this at home; on average, about half of 18-month olds will try to rub the spot off their face.
The mirror test has come under fire though, because much of the research has been conducted with infants from WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries. Older infants and children in rural, non-Western cultures do not consistently react in the same way as so called “WEIRD” babies to the spot on their nose when they see themselves in a mirror. For example, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology found that only 2 of the 82 Kenyan children in the study aged between 18 and 72 months “passed” the mirror test. These results suggest that the mirror test might be measuring more about experience with mirrors, than self-recognition per se.
Given these limitations, researchers have started to look at other ways of assessing self-recognition in babies, including measuring the changes in the electrical activity produced by the brain when infants look at faces.
Researchers from the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands used electroencephalogram (or EEG) to measure infants’ brain activity while 18 month old infants looked at pictures of their own face, the face of another infant, their parent and an unfamiliar person. For 13 of the 18 infants tested, the brain responses were bigger when babies looked at a picture of themselves relative to when they looked at a picture of another infant’s face.
Researcher also tested the same group of babies on the the mirror test, and much like previous research, showed that about half the babies noticed the red mark on their face and touched it. If the mirror test and the brain response measures are both indexing infants’ ability to recognise themselves in the mirror, we might expect that only those who pass the mirror test would show the differential brain response. However, when researchers compared the brain responses of the babies who passed the mirror test and those who did not there was no significant difference in the brain activity of the two groups.
This research suggests that most babies have the capacity to recognise their own image and distinguish it from images of other people as early as 18 months, however, only half of them will respond to their reflection in the mirror by touching the mark on their face. By measuring more than just behaviour, new tools such as EEG give more nuanced insight into complex phenomenon like self recognition.
The mirror test is still fun and you should give it a go at home. Don’t worry if your 18-month old doesn’t rub off the spot though. This research suggests that they understand that the face in the mirror is their own, they just don’t care that their nose looks funny.
As the pre-Christmas hype is building, I have seen more and more news articles with headings like “Don't tell children Father Christmas is real because lying to children could damage them, warn experts” and “Lying About Santa Claus Could Undermine Kids' Trust In Their Parents, Say Psychologists.” The media have been writing about an essay that was published in the The Lancet Psychiatry by UK psychologists Christopher Boyle and Kathy McKay. The essay argues that we shouldn’t lie to our children about Father Christmas because it damages our relationships with them and stops us from being relied upon as “guardians of wisdom and truth.”
This seems like an odd concept to me; all of my childhood Christmas memories are of thinking it was so magical that Santa could come down the chimney with his elves, flying on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Even when I found out the truth about Father Christmas I still loved trying to keep the secret from my little sister and brother, even if it did take a bit of magic out of Christmas for me. I decided to have a look at data to see if there is any evidence that telling children that Santa is real might be damaging for them.
The main argument against telling children about Father Christmas is that lying to children makes them mistrust their parents. It is true that research has shown that children mistrust adults who lie to them. Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York set up a situation in which the experimenter promised the child new art supplies and then either delivered on that promise (i.e. was shown to be reliable) or did not deliver (i.e. lied to the child). Children were then tested on the classic marshmallow task. The experimenter gave each child one marshmallow and told them that they were going to go and get more marshmallows. The experimenter told the child that they could have a second one, only if they could wait and refrain from eating the one they were given until the experimenter came back. The results showed that children who had previously been lied to by the experimenter only waited 3 minutes to eat the marshmallow, while children who had not been lied to waited on average 4 times longer! In this study, however, it was a stranger who lied to the children, and the only experience with this adult they had to base their trust on was the previous lie they had told. We don’t know whether the results would be the same if it was their parents who had lied to them.
The authors of these anti-Santa articles all seem to be working under the assumption that children believe lying is wrong in all circumstances, and have no concept of a socially acceptable or so called “white lie”. There is, however, some research to contradict this assumption. Victoria Talwar and colleagues from Canada gave children between the ages of 3 and 11 a gift that they knew the children did not want (i.e. a bar of plain white soap). When the researchers asked the children if they liked their gift nearly 70% of children lied, even without being told to by their parents. This percentage rose to nearly 90% when parents told their kids to tell a “white lie”, suggesting even very young children are aware that it is sometimes ok to lie. As children got older, the likelihood of them telling a lie also increased; 74% of preschoolers (age 3 to 5) told a “white lie,” while 84% of children aged 9-11 knew that it was ok to lie to prevent hurting someone’s feelings.
Boyle and McKay also do not acknowledge that Father Christmas is not the only lie that parents tell to their children. In fact, in one survey from the USA found that 78% of parents reported lying to their children at least once, despite the majority of them reporting that they were strongly committed to teaching their children that lying is wrong.
So, what does all of this mean for poor old Father Christmas? Parents have been telling their children about him for hundreds of years and Boyle and Mckay’s opinion is just that, an opinion. There is no empirical data to suggest that lying about Santa is harmful to children. Ultimately the only person who can decide whether you want your children to experience the delight that comes from the magical fantasy is you, the parent.
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.