COLUMBUS, Ohio -- New research provides the strongest evidence to date that infants and young children – unlike adults -- are more drawn to sounds than they are to visuals in their environment.
In fact, when 4-year-olds are presented with sounds and pictures at the same time and told to pay particular attention to the pictures, they can’t – the sounds dominate their attention.
“We found that sounds are dominant over visuals from infancy, and only slowly through childhood do visuals become more important,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, professor in the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University.
“The younger the children are, the more dominant their auditory system seems to be.”
Earlier work by Sloutsky and his colleagues also showed this preference for sounds over visuals among children. But this new research offers a clearer picture of the nature of this auditory preference and how it changes over time.
For infants, sounds are preferred almost exclusively. Older children tested at 4 years of age generally preferred sounds over visuals, with the exception of familiar objects – they paid more attention to a familiar visual when it is paired with an unknown sound.
Overall, the new research showed children seem to be able to process only one type of stimuli at a time – usually sounds, but sometimes visuals. Adults, on the other hand, can process both sounds and visuals together, but prefer visual information.
Sloutsky, who is also associate dean of research for the university’s College of Human Ecology, said children probably pay more attention to sounds because of their temporary nature.
“If you don’t pay attention to sounds, they disappear,” he said. “On the other hand, many visual stimuli are stable and stationary. This preference for sounds makes sense in the case of learning language. If infants and young children didn’t favor sounds, it is difficult to explain how they could pick up language.”
Sloutsky recently published two related papers on this research. One article, co-authored with Ohio State graduate student Amanda Napolitano, appears in the December 2004 issue of Child Development. A second paper, in the September 2004 issue of Child Development, was co-authored with post- doctoral researcher Christopher Robinson.
In the two published papers, the researchers report on 11 different experiments involving 8-, 12-, and 16-month-olds and 4-year-old children and adults.
In the experiment involving 8-month-olds, the infants were videotaped while sitting on a parent’s lap in front of a large projection screen. They were then repeatedly presented a certain combination of a picture and sound to familiarize them with that combination. Previous work had shown that when infants become familiar with a picture, they look at it significantly less.
During the testing phase, the infants were sometimes presented with a different picture or a different sound from the sound-picture combination they were familiar with. By observing children and later reviewing the videotape, the researchers were able to see whether the infants turned their heads toward a new sound or a new picture.
The results showed that the infants did not look significantly longer at new visuals when they were paired with the familiar sounds – indicating that the new pictures did not capture their attention. However, they did look significantly longer at pictures – whether new or old – when they were paired with new sounds.
“Of all the groups we studied, infants were the most likely to attend to sounds over visuals,” Sloutsky said.
In previous research, Sloutsky had found that 4-year-olds also preferred sounds to visuals. In this new study, he extended that work to see whether this auditory dominance remains in effect in all conditions.
The results showed that the children paid more attention to sounds when they were presented with unfamiliar pictures. But when they were presented with familiar pictures and unfamiliar sounds, children paid more attention to the pictures.
“More familiar stimuli are likely to overshadow those stimuli that children don’t have experience with,” he said.
The research showed that the relative complexity of the visuals did not play a role in whether children paid more attention to them or not – familiarity was the important factor.
The pull of sounds over visuals can be powerful, Sloutsky said. In one experiment, the 4-year-olds were shown a picture of a geometric shape paired with a sound and asked to remember it. The researchers told the children explicitly to pay attention to the shape: “Don’t forget, you have to remember the picture!”
They were then shown a second shape-sound combination and asked if it was the same as the first. Results showed that the children were not accurate in pointing out new shapes if they were paired with the familiar sounds. They were much more accurate at noticing new sounds.
Other experiments showed that the children could accurately tell when the shapes were changed, if the visuals were presented alone. This means they have no problem finding differences in visuals. It is only when visuals are competing with sounds that children no longer pay as much attention to the visuals.
“This suggests that children are automatically drawn to sounds over visuals,” Sloutsky said. “It is not something they can control.”
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
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