New baby lab to work out what goes on in babies’ minds

Psychologists at the University of Manchester have set up a ‘BabyLab’ within the University, to try and learn more about how babies acquire knowledge.

For babies the world is a complicated collection of sights, sounds and smells, and making sense of it isn’t easy. Scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding how infants’ perception develops, but there is still a lot to learn about how they understand the world.

Lead investigator Dr Sylvain Sirois said: “We have set up the BabyLab to investigate how babies’ learning is linked to their neurological development. Most people, including other psychologists, see learning as a set of specific, idiosyncratic changes which take effect quickly in humans of all ages, whereas development is seen as a series of universal changes affecting children over relatively long time-frames.

“But these ideas really just describe different outcomes rather than the mechanisms behind them, which are of fundamental importance. We want to understand learning and development as distinct processes, and how they work together to produce change.

“For example, research to date has indicated that an important developmental change takes place in the brain in the first year of life, which shifts control of babies’ behaviour to the cortex. In particular a lot happens between five and six months of age, and we want to examine this further by looking at changes in everything from babies’ perceptual learning to their temperament during this crucial period.”

In one test the babies will be shown two patterns of simple shapes on a video screen, some remaining the same while others change. Dr Sirois explained: “Babies get bored relatively quickly when shown repeated, inconsequential events, but they can start to display renewed interest when events change. This is a sign that they have learned and gives us a unique window into their mind – by manipulating what they see we can identify what they distinguish as different and monitor how this ability develops.”

“How quickly they both get bored and renew their interest in response to new stimuli has been linked to later intellectual development.”

Parents or caregivers with a child between three and five months of age who are able to help should contact Emma Wilson on 0161 275 1967, or email [email protected] for more information. Each baby will be asked to visit the University on Oxford Road once or twice, with parents/caregivers remaining with them at all times and being asked to complete some short questionnaires during the visit. Travel expenses (up to £20) can be covered within the M60 or car parking provided.

From University of Manchester

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