“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
The popularity of services such as Skype and FaceTime are a great opportunity for children to communicate in new ways. But how well do children actually learn via video chat? New research from the Lafayette College, USA, has found that 1 to 2 year olds can learn new information and develop relationships through real-time video chat.
In the study, toddlers either watched a pre-taped video or participated in a live video chat with a person . In both cases, the person taught them some new words and read a peek-a-boo book. The toddlers who did the live video chat performed better than those who watched the pre-taped video in many areas- they learnt more new words and better remembered the question-answer pattern of the book. They also more often recognised and preferred the person over a stranger when interacting in real life.
The finding is surprising because previous research has found that children generally learn less well through non-interactive video, than live experiences. According to this study it seems that video chat doesn’t seem to run into the same problem. The researchers suggest this is because video chat is socially contingent; much like real-life interactions, video chat allows the children and their partner to respond to each other’s actions and gestures in real-time.
It is important to note that in this experiment, the researchers didn’t compare video chat to real life interactions, so we don’t know whether the two are equally effective learning formats. But the study does suggest we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Skype or Facetime as just another kind of “screen time”; Facetiming with grandma may be an effective way to maintain relationships and learn new things.
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.
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.