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How babies think and learn

ASU professor measures the effort and nonverbal communication of infants to study how they learn to talk

Kelsey Lucca. Photo by Robert Ewing.

April 16, 2020

In college, Kelsey Lucca became obsessed with how animals think. Now, she spends her days working to understand how people think. 

After joining Arizona State University last fall, Lucca founded the Emerging Minds Lab in the Department of Psychology. Work in the lab examines how human infants and children learn and also investigates how a child’s environment and their curiosity affect learning.

“In our lab, we study how infants and young children learn about the world around them. We try to understand how early emerging cognitive abilities set the foundation for the development of more complex, uniquely human traits, such as language and culture. We are particularly interested in the role that children’s curiosity plays in shaping how they think and reason about the world, and how the social environment supports early curiosity and learning,” said Lucca, who is an assistant professor of psychology.

The Emerging Minds Lab is currently using Twitter (@EmergingMindsAZ) to share resources based on developmental science to families at home because of the pandemic. 

What is it? Studying how infants communicate before they can talk

One way to study how people learn to think and communicate is to study how infants learn to talk. Before infants use words to communicate, they use specific movements like pointing and reaching.  

In a recent study, Lucca and her collaborators tested how infants use gestures like pointing and reaching to communicate and learn. To do so, the research team introduced 18-month-old infants to novel objects. When the infant pointed to an object, the experimenter either told them the name of the object, demonstrated and named its function or gave them no information. 

The infants kept pointing when the experimenter demonstrated the object function or gave no information. But when the experimenter said the object name, the infants stopped pointing. This finding suggests that the infants were pointing to learn the name of the object. 

“Just as if you were to ask me a question, and you weren’t satisfied with the answer, you would likely follow up with another question,” Lucca said. “Babies do the same thing. When they point and don’t get the response they were looking for, they keep pointing — as if to repair their communicative message.”   

Sometimes instead of pointing, the infants reached for the object. The infants stopped reaching when the experimenter told them the name or function of the object and also when they received no information. In these instances, the infants did not learn the object names and functions as well as they did when they had pointed to the object.

“When babies point toward objects, they’re not doing it simply get attention, or to get you to look at what they are pointing toward. Rather, they often point because they are curious — they want to know something about what they are pointing toward. And when this curiosity is fed, when information is provided at that moment in which it is explicitly sought out, infants’ learning is enhanced,” Lucca said.

The frequency of pointing is related to how many words an infant currently knows and to the size of their future vocabulary. 

Video by ASU Department of Psychology.

When and how much to try: The impact of effort on learning

A previous study of Lucca’s showed that infants do not always persist in asking for more information. Instead, they strategically decide when and how much to try. The study, carried out with collaborators from the University of Toronto and the University of Washington, was published in the Jan. 20 issue of Nature Human Behaviour. 

The 18-month-old infants in the study had to pull rope to access a clear box that had a toy inside. Before it was their turn to try, they watched an adult experimenter pull the rope. The experimenter either easily moved the box, struggled and then succeed in moving it or failed to move the box. 

Before the infants tried pulling the rope, the box was covertly attached to the table, making it impossible to move. Only the infants who watched the experimenter struggle and succeed to move the box kept trying. The other infants gave up, suggesting that infants used the experiences of other people to decide whether to persist in trying to solve a problem. 

This study also looked at whether infants asked for help by pointing or gesturing. The infants who watched the experimenter easily move the box requested help the most, which indicates the infants only sought help when they knew it would be useful.

“Persistence is important and plays a role in learning and life outcomes such as school performance and enhanced well-being,” Lucca said. “But, it’s not always a good idea to persist because effort is a limited resource, and deploying effort is metabolically costly, requiring time and energy. What truly drives learning is knowing when to try and what the best way to try is.”

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