Most parents view their child's development — from those newborn gurgles and smiles to first steps, first words and maturation into a thinking, speaking human being — as a marvelous, ever-unfolding mystery.
At the new Laboratory for Child Development at The Johns Hopkins University's Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, those milestones are fodder for research into everything from how infants keep track of objects to whether babies and children are logical and rational when making decisions.
"We investigate how infants and young children perceive and reason about the world around them," explains Lisa Feigenson, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, who co-directs the lab with Justin Halberda, also an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. "Through our work, we have discovered that, in many ways, children know much, much more than people once thought they did. But in other ways, children perceive the world quite differently than adults do."
Topics studied in the lab include how infants and young children keep track of and reason about moving or hidden objects; how children learn words for new objects and actions; and how children understand numbers prior to any formal mathematical education, among others. The studies involve children ages three months to six years, and take place in the brand new, brightly-painted lab decorated in a friendly zoo theme.
"We felt it was very important that the lab environment be cheerful and colorful and be a place where babies, children and their parents could feel at home and at ease," Halberda said. "We're interested in how babies and children process information, and in order for them to do that in the most natural way possible, they have to be comfortable."
In addition to being research partners, Feigenson and Halberda are a married couple who came to Johns Hopkins from Harvard University last summer to set up and run the new Laboratory for Child Development. Though their research interests diverge — Feigenson specializes in the study of how infants keep track of and remember objects and Halberda studies word learning and logical reasoning — their goal of understanding how infants and young children perceive and contemplate the world around them is the same.
They do this through a variety of studies, all approved in advance by The Johns Hopkins University Institutional Review Board. These studies take the form of simple games that babies, children, and even their parents — all volunteers from the community — usually find fun and engaging.
"In our infant studies, for instance, a baby sits in an infant seat and watches a kind of show consisting of objects or video animations," Feigenson explains. "We record the baby's behavior and measure how long he or she spends looking at or reaching for an object."
What can the researchers learn from such a simple exercises? Quite a bit, it seems.
"Babies usually look longer at things they find new or surprising, so we can make inferences about how they perceive and understand what they see by looking for patterns of behavior across a number of infants," Halberda says. "It's patterns we are looking at, and not performances of individual children."
These patterns can inform parents, pediatricians and scientists about what goes on in the mind of a young child.
"In infants and small children, we use behavioral patterns to make inferences about babies' knowledge," Feigenson explains. "Not just whether they have or don't have some bit of knowledge — such as whether they know that things continue to exist even when they can't see them — but also how that knowledge is structured. Does one bit of knowledge depend on another bit? Does it require experience in the world in order for it to develop? Or is it hard-wired into the brain as a product of evolution? And finally, how can a big blob of brain tissue ever contain the complexities of information babies and small children deal with every day? These are just some of the subjects we are interested in exploring."
Johns Hopkins paid for the construction of the new lab facility, and Feigenson and Halberda are in the process of applying to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for funding for their research studies.
Baltimore-area parents who are interested in learning more about having their babies or children participate in studies at the new facility can call 410-516-6068 or send an email inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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