Babies Think, Therefore ...

Infants Use Pure Reasoning to Make Sense of the World

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 26, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

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.

12-Month-Olds Used Pure Reasoning

Based on the time the different scenes held the babies’ attention, the researchers concluded that they were using pure reasoning to predict which shape would fall out.

When the scene was blocked very briefly, infants were surprised if the object farthest from the container exit dropped out of the container.

When the view was blocked longer, the exiting objects distance from the exit became less important to the babies.

The model developed by Vul and Tenenbaum accurately predicted how long the roughly dozen different scenarios depicted in the videos would hold the babies’ attention.

According to the researchers, the study marks the first time infant cognition has been modeled in such mathematical terms.

While the understanding of how babies think is still in its infancy, Vul says the early work suggests that humans use abstract reasoning to understand the world throughout their lives.

“It appears that babies may be quite a bit smarter than we have thought,” he says.

Show Sources


Teglas, E. Science, May 27, 2011; vol 332: pp 1054-1059.

Edward Vul, PhD candidate, assistant professor, University of California San Diego.

News release, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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