“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
Most parents are all too familiar with the experience of asking their preschooler what they want for dinner, only to be frustrated that by the time dinner time arrives their child no longer wants the food they were craving only hours earlier. Research suggests this might happen because until around 5 years old, children have difficulty thinking about how they might feel even in the immediate future. Preschooler’s decisions for the future are also heavily influenced by what they want right now. However, it is possible that allowing children to satisfy their current desires might make it easier for them to make decisions for the future.
My honours thesis project investigated this idea in 4-year-old children. I showed children pairs of images and asked them to tell me which item they liked; in each pair, one item was something a child would typically like (e.g. a juice box) while the other was something an adult would typically like (e.g. coffee). I asked some children to tell me what they like right now and then I asked them what they might like when they are grown up. Other children were asked to tell me what they might like as a grown up before they told me what they like right now.
When 4-year-old children were asked to tell me what they might like best as a grown up first, they tended to choose the items an adult would prefer and the items a child would prefer roughly equally; they pretty much chose at random. However, children who were allowed to tell me what they liked now before they had to choose what they might like as a grown up, were much better at choosing the appropriate items, i.e. coffee, for their grown up selves.
We think that this order effect occurs because it is easier for children to tell us they might like coffee when they are a grown up if their current desire to tell us that they really like juice boxes has been satisfied.
If children are better at thinking about their future once current desires have been satisfied, we wondered if allowing children to physically interact with the items they desired might also make it easier to think about future preferences. To test this hypothesis, children in another group were allowed to play with all of the items that children typically prefer before they were asked about what they might like as a grown up.
Surprisingly, we found that the play session was beneficial for boys but detrimental for girls. Boys were better at telling us they might like coffee as a grown up after they drank a juice box, thus satisfying their desire for juice. On the other hand, girls were more likely to choose a juice box for their grown up selves after they had drank one.
We think that this may have happened because the play session was enough to fulfil boy’s desires, but not long enough to fulfil girl’s desires. The play session involved sitting down at a table interacting with items with a female experimenter. We know from previous research that girls prefer to play with girls, and boys prefer to play with boys. In addition, girls enjoy this type of quiet play more than boys. So perhaps boys got bored of the items quite quickly, while for girls the 15 minutes of play was just enough to remind them of how much they love juice boxes, Play-Doh, picture books, sticker books and Play School.
So what does this all mean for parents? Well, our research might suggest that if you want to know what your preschooler really wants to eat for dinner, try asking them what they want to eat right now first!
Down Syndrome, which results from the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21, is the most common cause of intellectual disability. Because it is caused by a genetic abnormality, people most often think that the learning difficulties that are characteristic of Down Syndrome must be present from birth. Research from our lab has questioned this assumption, however, showing that while preschoolers with Down Syndrome have general cognitive delays, their learning and memory abilities are no worse than typically-developing children who are matched on mental age. In short, children with Down Syndrome may “grow into” their learning difficulties.
In these studies, we recruited 3- to 5-year-old children with Down Syndrome and typically-developing children of the same mental age. The typically-developing children had the same level of cognitive ability as the Down Syndrome children, but were younger in chronological age. The children were tested on a number of “games” to find out how good the children were at remembering things we showed them. In one of these games, we hid a toy in a box and asked the children to find the toy after two minutes. We then hid another toy in the box and had children remember where it was 24 hour later. In another task we showed the children how to put together a toy rattle in 3 steps. The next day we asked children to imitate the actions that we used to make the rattle.
The results showed that when compared to children who had the same mental age, preschoolers with Down Syndrome did not exhibit any learning and memory impairments. Children with Down Syndrome were just as likely to find the toy that was hidden in the box after a delay, and remembered the same number of actions that were required to assemble the rattle.
These results are important because they highlight that the preschool years may be an important period for early intervention for children with Down Syndrome. Future research will determine whether it is possible to design interventions that would allow children’s learning development abilities keep pace with their cognitive development, thus preventing the disproportionate learning impairments that are common in Down Syndrome.
Lynette Roberts conducted this research as part of her PhD thesis. The work was published in Developmental Science and you can watch Lynette talking about it here. If you are interested in participating in research looking at learning and memory development in typically developing infants and children, or know anyone who might me, join our Baby Scientists here.
Have you ever wondered why you are so good at picking up on how your friends are feeling? Is this ability to catch emotion from others, known as affective empathy, instinctive from birth, or do we learn how to share emotions with other people?
As adults, when we look at people’s faces, we rapidly and unconsciously move the muscles in our face to mirror the expression of the person we are looking at. So if we look at a happy person, the muscles in our cheeks that would normally be activated when we are smiling contract a tiny bit. This movement is so small that it is invisible to the naked eye and you don’t even know you are doing it. Luckily, thanks to some amazing technology, we can now measure these minuscule movements. Scientists believe that this automatic mirroring of the movements involved in expressing emotion is what helps us to be able to tell how others are feeling so rapidly. By mimicking others emotion, we can quickly come to understand respond to their emotions in an appropriate way, avoiding any awkward situations. This poses an interesting question to developmental psychologists: when does this rapid facial responding start happening?
At the Early Learning Project we want to find out if this mimicry response is something that we are born with, or if babies have to learn to share emotion with other people. Our PhD student, Amy Datyner, recorded the muscle movement of 7-month-old infants using electromyography, or EMG. Babies wore tiny sensors placed on their cheek and brow while we showed them pictures of lots of happy and angry faces.
Our research found that babies do activate the smiling muscles when they look at happy faces, but they do not activate frowning muscles when they see angry faces. This finding suggest that rapid facial mimicry is not necessarily present at birth and does not necessarily occur in response to all kinds of emotion expression early in life.
Why do infants mimic happy but not angry face? It is possible that we can explain this result by thinking about how much infants are exposed to different emotions. Afterall, how often do people get angry at little babies? And who can resist smiling at them?
This is the first time that this muscle movements have been used to record mimicry in infants and our study has provided exciting new evidence about how babies learn to share emotional reactions with other people. . Our research shows that babies share positive emotional reactions with people early on, so next time you’re playing with your baby, don’t forget they know how you’re feeling- and might even be mimicking you without even realising it.
Amy’s manuscript is under revision at Developmental Psychobiology and we are planning a followup study to look at whether infants are more likely to mimic emotional expressions shared by a caregiver relative to a stranger, so if you are interested in getting involved or know someone who might be, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website www.earlylearningsydney.com
Why does your baby like that particular scrappy grey rabbit that is no longer really grey and has almost lost one of its ears? You might wonder how that strong preference for a particular object came about?
New research from our lab shows that infants’ preferences for objects can be manipulated by pairing emotional stimuli with initially-neutral objects, a process that is known as evaluative conditioning.
In these studies, we showed 6- to 7-month-old babies were shown images of two different objects like the blue square and a yellow triangle shown below
On each trial, one of these objects was shown on a screen at the same time as a picture of a happy face, while the other was presented at the same time as an angry face. These object emotion pairings were shown over and over again until the the infants were bored of looking at them. Throughout this learning phase, we used an eye tracker to record where the babies were looking.
After the learning phase was completed, we showed the babies pictures of the two objects on the screen at the same time, and then gave them the opportunity to “tell” us which of the objects they like best by choosing one or the other.
Overall, we found that more babies chose the object that had been paired with happy faces than the object paired with angry faces, however, where babies were looking during learning predicted which object they would choose. Babies who looked more at the faces than at the objects were more likely to chose the object that was associated with the happy face, whereas babies who looked equally at the faces and object seemed to choose randomly.
We replicated this effect in a second study in which the same objects were paired with either pictures of the baby’s mother, or a picture of a stranger. Again, more babies picked the object that was paired with their mum than with a stranger and the amount of time they spent looking at the faces predicted which object they chose.
Our research show that infant’s preferences for objects may come about via simple associative learning processes. Infants come to like objects that are associated with positive affect (happy faces; pictures of their mum), however, this kind of learning depends on how much time infants spend looking at the source of that emotion (i.e. the face).
As for that rabbit, you probably smile at your baby as you lay them in their cot and hand them the rabbit at bed time. It’s possible that they like it because they have learned to associate it with you, their favourite person in the world.
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.