The Brain: What Do Babies Know?

Less than we thought, say scientists at the new Babylab. What passed for intelligence may have been boredom

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Philip Hollis for TIME

Ten-month-old Daniel Haworth in Sylvain Sirois' Babylab at Manchester University. He is being tested for cognitive ability.

As Daniel Haworth is settled into a high chair and wheeled behind a black screen, a sudden look of worry furrows his 9-month-old brow. His dark blue eyes dart left and right in search of the familiar reassurance of his mother's face. She calls his name and makes soothing noises, but Daniel senses something unusual is happening. He sucks his fingers for comfort, but, finding no solace, his mouth crumples, his body stiffens, and he lets rip an almighty shriek of distress. Mom picks him up, reassures him, and two minutes later, a chortling and alert Daniel returns to the darkened booth behind the screen and submits himself to Babylab, a unit set up in 2005 at the University of Manchester in northwest England to investigate how babies think.

Watching infants piece life together, seeing their senses, emotions and motor skills take shape, is a source of mystery and endless fascination--at least to parents and developmental psychologists. We can decode their signals of distress or read a million messages into their first smile. But how much do we really know about what's going on behind those wide, innocent eyes? How much of their understanding of and response to the world comes preloaded at birth? How much is built from scratch by experience? Such are the questions being explored at Babylab. Though the facility is just 18 months old and has tested only 100 infants, it's already challenging current thinking on what babies know and how they come to know it.

Daniel is now engrossed in watching video clips of a red toy train on a circular track. The train disappears into a tunnel and emerges on the other side. A hidden device above the screen is tracking Daniel's eyes as they follow the train and measuring the diameter of his pupils 50 times a second. As the child gets bored--or "habituated," as psychologists call the process--his attention level steadily drops. But it picks up a little whenever some novelty is introduced. The train might be green, or it might be blue. And sometimes an impossible thing happens--the train goes into the tunnel one color and comes out another.

Variations of experiments like this one, examining infant attention, have been a standard tool of developmental psychology ever since the Swiss pioneer of the field, Jean Piaget, started experimenting on his children in the 1920s. Piaget's work led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works or any sense of "object permanence" (that people and things still exist even when they're not seen). Instead, babies must gradually construct this knowledge from experience. Piaget's "constructivist" theories were massively influential on postwar educators and psychologists, but over the past 20 years or so they have been largely set aside by a new generation of "nativist" psychologists and cognitive scientists whose more sophisticated experiments led them to theorize that infants arrive already equipped with some knowledge of the physical world and even rudimentary programming for math and language. Babylab director Sylvain Sirois has been putting these smart-baby theories through a rigorous set of tests. His conclusions so far tend to be more Piagetian: "Babies," he says, "know squat."

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