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Health & Baby

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Babies Think, Therefore ...

Infants Use Pure Reasoning to Make Sense of the World
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 26, 2011 -- Babies as young as 12 months old can reason and make rational predictions about how novel situations will play out, according to an international team of researchers who study the infant mind.

The findings suggest that, like adults, babies are capable of sophisticated analysis when they encounter new and complex visual scenes.

“They have expectations about how objects in the world will move and how they will interact, and they use these expectations to make sense of the world,” study co-author Edward Vul tells WebMD.

The study, published May 27 in the journal Science, builds on earlier research showing that babies have the ability to conceptualize abstract principles about their physical world and that their "surprise" can be measured by how long something holds their attention.

In short, the more unexpected the event, the longer babies tend to watch it.

Babies’ ‘Surprise’ Measured

While a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Vul and MIT associate professor of computational cognitive science Joshua Tenenbaum, PhD, developed a computer model of infant cognition simulating pure reasoning -- a way of thinking that combines different sources of information with abstract knowledge to form expectations about new situations.

This is very different from predicting future events based on past experience, and it has not been clear if babies used pure reasoning until now.

“Real intelligence is about finding yourself in situations that you’ve never been in before but that have some abstract principles in common with your experience, and using that abstract knowledge to reason productively in the new situation,” Tenenbaum says in a news release.

The researchers showed 12-month-old babies videos in which different colored shapes bounced around inside a container with an opening at the bottom.

After a while, the container was blocked from view, while one of the shapes dropped out of it.

Different videos showed different scenarios, changing the proportion of block colors, the proximity of the target shape to the opening, and the length of time it took for the shape to drop out of the container.

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