Through the Eyes of a Child

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 29, 2000 -- Eight-month-old babies may have more complex brains than you think. In fact, in a study comparing them to six-month-olds, researchers at the Birbeck College in London, England found that eight-month-olds' brains can act adult-like and see whole objects, not just a collection of pieces, leading to future possibilities of viewing childhood education in a new way.

In the study, published in the November issue of Science, brain-wave experiments were performed in 22 youngsters, 11 of each age. All the subjects were hooked up to special brain-monitoring device. Only the eight-month-olds exhibited a measured burst of brain activity when shown an illusory square, anchored at each corner by Pacman-like open-circles. According to researchers in the field, the ability to see this type of image indicates skill at recognizing illusional objects and, it would seem, 'seeing the whole picture' -- not just its parts.

Study author Gergery Csibra writes that the particular strength of the infants' electrical bursts coincided with that seen in adults confronted with similar illusory images. Yet another image -- this time with the Pacman-like objects slightly askew -- caused an adult-like brain wave response in the eight-month-olds, but again, not in the six-month-olds.

"It shows that the perception of unitary objects is based on the same ...[nerve] mechanisms in infants as in adults," says Csibra. "And it suggests that it is precisely the development of these ... [nerve] mechanisms that enables infants to see these objects."

However, he tells WebMD there are no "direct" educational implications -- at this point. "We have to gather much more knowledge about brain development before we can apply this knowledge in practice," Csibra says. "However, this result gives us a further tool to assess how infants interpret the world, and a better understanding of their abilities and limitations may help us in the future to create infant-friendly environments."

But one researcher in the field says that behavioral studies have already shown infants can see whole objects. "We know, for example, the infant will recognize the face of its mother," says Richard Held, PhD, director of research for the New England College of Optometry in Boston. "So I don't see what the big deal is here. There's a whole body of literature of what infants can see. If they recognize their mother's face, they can put together the features, right?"

Held says even newborns see things. "Exactly how complex the objects they may discern is another question. But certainly they can see gross differences among entities." Held says the value of the research may be in its corroboration of what has already been observed from behavioral science.

He does suggest, however, that the information will further bolster the idea that human beings are teachable -- and capable of absorbing knowledge -- at a much earlier age that some might think. "The general trend in research has been to show children at a very early age are capable of seeing and learning. That's certainly true."

Held adds: "Assuming they're capable -- and in a rich environment with older people -- they can acquire quite a bit of learning by a very early age."