The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to. Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that foreign lullabies that babies have never heard before work to relax them.
Conversations about race are not always easy, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has recently explored in her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. But they’re no less necessary for it: not talking about racism is simply not an option, particularly for those of us who benefit from structural inequality.
We all have a part to play in this ongoing dialogue — including parents of children growing up in a world full of racial injustice. Previous research has suggested that constructive conversations about race and ethnicity can have positive outcomes for children of all races — increased empathy, an ability to learn about and accept different perspectives, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias.
But a new paper from Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that those crucial conversations are being delayed — because parents are misjudging their children’s ability to process and understand race.
It’s an oft-repeated supposition that you can tell whether someone fancies you by their body language: if they mirror how you’re standing or moving, the theory goes, they might just like you back. But romantic partners don’t just have behavioural synchrony — in some cases, they have brain-to-brain synchrony too.
A pattern that has also been observed in musicians and their audiences, brain-to-brain synchrony is a mirroring of neural activity between individuals or groups. And according to a new study in Scientific Reports, such synchrony in spouses could affect how they respond to their children.
Language learning can be a matter of much concern for new parents, who often worry about what their baby is saying, how they’re saying it, and when. With previous research suggesting that frequent verbal engagement with babies can boost vocabulary and reading comprehension, this preoccupation is not without merit. But even those parents who aren’t too fixated on baby’s first word may in fact be improving their offspring’s language, even if they’re not aware of it.
A form of speech dubbed “parentese” may be a key factor in improving language learning in infants, a new study in PNAS has suggested. Naja Ferjan Ramírez and colleagues from the University of Washington examined the distinctive form of sing-song speech often aimed at babies, finding that it improved conversation between parents and their children and even boosted language development.
Babies’ first motor skills – how early they learn to reach for things and explore them – are related to their later abilities, both motor skills (such as crawling and walking) and skills in other domains, such as their vocabulary. This raises the intriguing possibility that those early motor abilities facilitate subsequent developments, triggering what psychologists call a “developmental cascade”. This makes sense – for example, a baby who can already reach for and interact with things tends to attract more attention from his or her parents, which in turn is likely to foster further broad developmental progress.
A new study in Developmental Science has tested this cascade theory with a training intervention. The researchers in America recruited a group of 14 three-month-old babies and their mothers, and for two weeks, the mothers were instructed to engage their infants in ten minutes per day of active reaching training. This involved the babies wearing Velcro covered mittens and being encouraged to reach for Velcro covered toys, with the Velcro helping the babies to successfully reach for and obtain the toys. A comparison group of 11 three-month-olds and their mothers spent the same time performing a passive version of the training, without the Velcro, in which the mothers touched the toys to their infants’ hands. The babies also completed a basic test of their grasping skills, before and after their training.
When the babies were 15 months old, they returned to the psychology lab and were videoed playing with a bead-maze toy (a wooden block with metal wires attached, along which beads could be pushed). A further control group of fifteen 15-month-old babies who hadn’t participated in any training at three months were also videoed playing with the toy.
The babies who’d received the active reaching training at 3 months of age showed more precocious motor and attentional skills when playing with the toy, as compared with the two other groups. For example, they spent more time looking at, grasping and rotating the toy and less time being distracted. Moreover, the babies’ post-training, but not pre-training, grasping abilities at age 3 months were related to their play behaviour at 15 months, consistent with the idea that the early training had had a long-term influence.
The study involved only a small number of children, all of whom were from highly educated families, and this wasn’t a true randomised controlled trial because the no-training control group were recruited later and only visited the lab once. Nonetheless, these are fascinating results that suggest infants’ very early motor abilities have long-lasting knock-on effects on their later development, and that it may be possible to intervene early to assist this process. The researchers said intervening in this way might be particularly beneficial to babies born preterm and children at risk for autism, who are known to show motor delays and reduced grasping movements early in infancy.
_________________________________ Libertus, K., Joh, A., & Needham, A. (2015). Motor training at 3 months affects object exploration 12 months later Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12370
A US academic who spent 16 months embedded in three American psychology baby labs reports that he observed numerous examples of researchers cutting corners and bending the rules of science. Writing in Socius, David Peterson at Northwestern University in Chicago says that doing psychology research with babies is so challenging and costly that developmental psychologists routinely do things like: checking early in a study whether their results are going to be significant (and abandoning or changing tack if they don’t look promising); comparing notes with other supposedly independent judges when coding whether babies are looking at a stimulus; taking a relaxed approach to task instructions (for example, telling mothers that it doesn’t really matter too much if their eyes are closed or not during a task); and making up post-hoc explanatory stories to account for surprising results, with those stories later presented as the initial impetus for the research. As an example of that last point, Peterson quotes an exchange between a grad student and her mentor: “You don’t have to reconstruct your logic. You have the results now. If you can come up with an interpretation that works, that will motivate the hypothesis.”
The open-access paper, presented as an ethnographic study of baby labs, comes at a time when psychology is working hard to tighten up its research practices, for example through the Center for Open Science and the introduction of registered reports in which planned hypothesis-driven methodologies are accepted for publication before their results are in. Peterson says that he “took part in nearly every aspect of laboratory life”, that he took notes throughout the course of each day, and recorded all direct quotations immediately. “Ultimately I argue that developmental psychologists meet disciplinary requirements through a set of strategies that bend results toward statistical significance,” he writes.
Watching toddlers pinch, hit and bite each other doesn’t fill you with confidence about human nature. But there’s no need to be down about it – the little devils don’t yet have the self-control to manage their anger and frustration, that’s all. Right?
Not according to a new study published in Developmental Science, which is the first to systematically investigate the use of force in infants from age 11 months and up. Audun Dahl at the University of California, Santa Cruz, finds that in fact most of the time, the use of aggression* by toddlers is unprovoked.
Dahl interviewed 74 middle-class mothers with infants who were aged on average 16 months (range 11 to 24 months; 33 female). He asked these mums to describe a recent time when their child harmed someone else. Analysing the mothers’ stories, he found that in 76 per cent of the situations, the act of aggression was unprovoked and the aggressive infant did not show any signs of visible distress. This chimes with past research in which mothers reported their toddlers mostly showed signs of pleasure when they caused upset to other people.
Meanwhile, 26 per cent of the aggressive acts were provoked, for example to regain a toy from a sibling (and usually accompanied by distress), and 3 per cent were accidental. Overall, the stats argue against the idea that babies and toddlers mostly hit, scratch and bite as a way to vent their anger or frustration because they haven’t yet developed enough self-control.
To get more evidence, Dahl filmed 26 more infants (11 female) in their own homes for 2.5 hours each visit, always in the company of the child’s mother and a sibling. When he first visited each child, they were 14-months-old, then he returned when they were 19-months and 24-months-old. Analysing the videos for acts of aggression, he found that 49 per cent of the time the use of force was unprovoked, 43 per cent of the time it was provoked, and 8 per cent of incidences were accidental. Parents were the most frequent targets of aggression, followed by siblings and pets.
Zooming in on the acts of unprovoked aggression, most of the time these appeared to be what Dahl calls “explorative force”, for example to get attention, and there was rarely evidence that the aggressive infant was distressed. Less often, these unprovoked attacks were actually “miscalibrated force” – for example hitting the dog over the head when the probable intent was to stroke him.
More clues come from the infants’ personality: the toddlers who scored higher on their tendency to show pleasure tended to be the ones who committed more acts of unprovoked aggression, again suggesting they were using force as a form of fun interaction, rather than in rage. Also, provoked and unprovoked aggression showed different developmental trajectories. Provoked use of force increased consistently over time whereas unprovoked use of force rose at first, peaked at around 18 months, then decreased when the children were aged two.
These developmental results fit the idea that provoked aggressive acts are a symptom of toddlers’ ongoing lack of self control (and growing wilfulness) whereas their more frequent unprovoked aggression is more related to exploration and attention-seeking, combined with a relative lack of understanding about other people’s pain. Unprovoked acts presumably became less frequent from 18-months onwards as the toddlers learned that their aggression hurts others, or as they became more sensitive to other people’s distress. Complementing this account, Dahl found that unprovoked aggressive acts were especially likely to elicit negative reactions from parents or siblings, which presumably helped the toddlers learn to refrain from this behaviour.
Dahl concluded that his results show “that infants’ use of force against others is more diverse than typically assumed”, and he said more research on the topic is now needed in other settings and cultures to better understand how young children come to realise that unjustified aggression is wrong.
_________________________________ Dahl, A. (2015). Infants’ unprovoked acts of force toward others Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12342
*Note: Audun Dahl prefers not to describe infants’ use of force as “aggression” which implies the intent to harm, which he says is “difficult or impossible to assess in infants”. I chose to use a mix of descriptive words to avoid repetition, to resonate with readers’ everyday experience (parents rarely speak of “acts of force” but they do fret about their children’s aggression), and also because Dahl’s own analysis actually distinguishes between acts of unprovoked force which were apparently deliberate and those that were “miscalibrated force” – i.e. any harm was accidental.
Paediatricians’ offices are often adorned with a developmental milestone chart for infants, and they always show the same “normal” age-typical progression, from sitting to crawling to walking. But these expectations (e.g. 25 per cent of infants achieve independent sitting by 5.5 months) are rather misleading because they’re derived solely from research on Western babies conducted back in the 1930s and 1940s. A new study, published recently in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, aimed to broaden our understanding of what constitutes typical sitting ability, by observing five-month-old infants from six different cultures: Argentina, Cameroon, Italy, Kenya, South Korea, and the United States.
Lana Karasik and her colleagues also departed from previous research by observing babies in their home environment rather than in a psychology lab. Specifically, a researcher local to each of the six cultures visited 12 mother and baby pairs in their homes for one hour. These sessions were taped and coded later based on where the babies were (i.e. in their mothers arms, on the ground, or on baby or adult furniture), their body position (sitting or lying etc) and how close their mother was to them. The mothers didn’t know that the study was about infant sitting ability.
Overall, one third of the infants were able to sit independently, defined as sitting without support for at least one second. But there was significant cross-cultural variation. For example, just two of the US infants displayed independent sitting and none of the Italian infants, compared with 8 of the Kenyan infants (67 per cent) and 11 of the Cameroonian infants (92 per cent). There was also a wide-range of sitting proficiency, in terms of how long infants sat independently in a single bout. For example, the shortest bout was 2.4 seconds, while the longest was 28 minutes (achieved by a Cameroonian baby).
These cultural differences were mirrored by differences in the opportunities the infants were given to sit independently. For example, infants from the US, Argentina, South Korea and Italy spent most of their time in places that provided support, such as a strapped into child’s furniture or in their mother’s arms. By contrast, infants in Kenya and Cameroon spent most of their sitting time on the floor, or on adult furniture where they had to learn to balance themselves. Mothers in Kenya and Cameroon also tended to spend more time further away from their babies. One Kenyan mother spent 13 minutes out of reach of her baby as he sat independently on adult furniture (by the way, he didn’t fall off the furniture, and neither did any other babies in this research).
It’s tempting to infer that the cultural parenting practices in Kenya and Cameroon may have encouraged some of the infants in those cultures to acquire more precocious sitting abilities (on average). But of course this was a purely observational study with small samples, and we can’t know whether the infants’ abilities influenced their parents’ behaviour or vice versa (in fact, it’s probably a bit of both). It’s also important to note, as the researchers do, that there was a huge amount of overlap in sitting ability across the cultures (e.g. some US infants sat independently longer than some Kenyan and Cameroonian infants), and there is also a large amount of variation within the cultures. Because of this, Karasik and her team say it is inappropriate to talk of babies in some cultures being uniformly more precocious than babies in others.
Infant sitting is a very important skill – it frees their hands to explore objects and interact more easily with adults. Given this, it seems amazing that most of what we know about the development of sitting ability is based on dated, lab-based research conducted almost exclusively in Western countries. “Had we not looked beyond onset ages [the simplistic idea that a child is either a sitter or not], ventured outside the laboratory, and studied samples of infants from six cultures across the globe,” the researchers said, “we would never have known that at five months, some infants can safely sit on high benches for extended periods without the support of adults nearby.”
_________________________________ Karasik, L., Tamis-LeMonda, C., Adolph, K., & Bornstein, M. (2015). Places and Postures: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Sitting in 5-Month-Olds Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 46 (8), 1023-1038 DOI: 10.1177/0022022115593803
Human infants are helpless. At first they can’t even support the weight of their own heads. Crawling and walking take months to master. Compare this with the sprightly newborns of other mammals, such as kittens and foals, up and about within an hour of their birth. There are several theories as to why human development is so protracted – among them that this extra time is required for the human brain to develop. This post side-steps such debates and focuses on 10 studies hinting at the surprising abilities of babies aged up to one year. The research digested below suggests the infant mind is far more sophisticated than you might imagine:
Babies can meet a person once and remember them for years
We begin with a study in which 3-year-olds watched two videos shown side by side, each featuring a different researcher, one of whom they’d met once, two years earlier. The children spent longer looking at the video showing the researcher they hadn’t met. This is consistent with young children’s usual tendency to look longer at things that are unfamiliar, and it suggests they remembered the researcher they’d met once, when they were aged just one. Of course the phenomenon of infantile amnesia means these early long-term memories will likely be lost in subsequent years.
Babies can tell a human from a zombie (or a monkey)
Six-month-old and 12-month-old babies viewed pictures of cartoon human faces. Some of the faces looked creepy because they had zombie-style goggle eyes. Just like adults, the 12-month-olds (but not the 6-month-olds) spent longer looking at the faces with normal eyes. The researchers think this shows that by age one, human infants experience the “uncanny valley” effect – an aversion to creatures that are “almost human”. Another study published in 2011 found that 3-month-olds preferred looking at human faces or bodies than the bodies or faces of non-human primates, suggesting they already had some knowledge of what humans look like.
Babies can fake cry
Last year a Japanese researcher captured on video an instance of apparent feigned distress by an 11-month-old. Hiroko Nakayama filmed two babies in their homes for 60 minutes twice a month, for six months. One baby only ever cried after displaying negative emotion. However, on one occasion, the other baby (“Infant R”) was caught on camera laughing and smiling, then crying suddenly and briefly, then displaying positive emotion again. “Infant R appeared to cry deliberately to get her mother’s attention,” said Nakayama, [then] she showed smile immediately after her mother came closer.”
Babies can tell the difference between a dirge and a happy tune
For this study researchers played music to babies through speakers located either side of a face. They waited until the babies got bored and started looking away, then they changed the mood of the music – either from sad to happy, or vice versa. This mood switch made no difference to three-month-olds, but for the nine-month-olds it was enough to rekindle their interest and they started looking again in the direction of the face.
Babies have artistic tastes
After nine-month-old babies had grown bored of looking at a Monet paintings, their interest was piqued by the sight of a Picasso. However, the reverse wasn’t true: after time spent looking at Picasso, the babies preferred to look at more Picasso than at a new Monet. The researchers aren’t sure why Picasso holds such appeal, but it may have to do with the greater luminance of his paintings.
Babies can predict your intentions
Research published in 2006 found that 12-month-old babies, like adults, showed anticipatory eye movements when watching someone placing toys in a bucket. That is, their eyes jumped ahead to the bucket as if anticipating the person’s goal. Six-month-olds didn’t show this ability, they kept their eyes fixed on the toys. “We have demonstrated that when observing actions, 12-month-old infants focus on goals in the same way as adults do,” the researchers said.
Babies can hear speech sounds that you can’t
As babies develop they become attuned to the speech sounds relevant to their native language. Before this happens, they can detect all phonetic contrasts in human speech, including those that adults in their culture cannot. Take the example of the /r/ and /l/ sounds in English, which Japanese adults struggle to distinguish. Prior to 6-months, Japanese babies can distinguish these sounds as reliably as a baby raised in an English home.
Babies can show contempt
A study from 1980 involved adults looking at videotapes of babies (aged up to 9-months) as they pulled various facial expressions in response to real life events, including playful interactions and painful injections. The adults were able to reliably discern eight distinct emotions on the babies’ faces, including: “interest, joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, and fear.”
Babies rehearse words long before they can speak
For a study published this year, researchers scanned 7- and 11-month-old babies’ brains as the infants listened to speech sounds. The psychologists observed activity in motor-related parts of the babies’ brains, suggesting that the babies were already rehearsing how to produce the sounds themselves, even though most of them wouldn’t be able to speak for some months.
Babies understand basic physics
Human infants appear to arrive with prior expectations about how the world works. For example, a 2009 study found that 5-month-olds use basic cues to detect whether a material is solid or liquid, and having done so, they form expectations for how these substances will behave, such as whether they will pour or tumble, or whether they will be penetrated by a straw. “… these experiments begin to clarify the beginnings of naive physics,” the researchers said.
Dummies (known as pacifiers in the US) can calm a crying baby in seconds, so their appeal is obvious. However, a new study warns there could be a price to pay. Magdalena Rychlowska and her colleagues claim that because dummies obscure babies’ faces, they interfere with the way that adults respond to babies’ emotions.
The researchers used electrodes to record the facial muscles of 29 women (average age 21; two of them were mothers) while they looked at photographs of two young babies expressing happiness, sadness, anger or a neutral emotion. Sometimes the babies had dummies in their mouths; other times didn’t. Also, some of the photos featured a white square superimposed over the baby’s mouth region. This last condition was to control for any influence of the sight of a dummy, beyond its obscuring effect. As well as having their facial activity recorded, the participants also rated the intensity of the emotions shown by the babies.
When the women looked at happy babies with a dummy in their mouth (or when a white square was superimposed over the babies’ mouth region) they exhibited less activity in their Zygomaticus muscle, which pulls the mouth into a smile. In other words, they showed less mirroring of the babies’ happiness. When the babies had a dummy, or a white square covered their mouth region, the women also rated the babies’ happiness to be less intense. The presence of a dummy was no more interfering than the white square, which suggests the effect of the dummy was purely due to its visually obscuring effect, not to any cultural or emotional assumptions the women may have made.
What about when the babies expressed sadness and anger? The women’s corrugator frowning muscles were just as active when they looked at sad and angry babies whether the babies had a dummy or not, and irrespective of the presence of a white square. However, the women rated the babies’ sadness as less intense when the babies had a dummy or when a white square was superimposed over their mouth area.
The researchers said their results are important because they show how the use of babies’ dummies can interfere with emotional resonance between adult and baby. “Resonance with adult perceivers allows to infants to gain emotional understanding and develop mentalizing abilities,” they said. They also noted: “…[P]erceivers may find interactions with infants using a pacifier less enjoyable and less stimulating.” The new results also build on past research by the same team, which found amount of dummy use in infancy was associated (in boys only) with less automatic facial mimicry at age 6 to 7. Bear in mind though, that this past research did not prove dummy use was responsible for the later reductions in mimicry.
There are some obvious problems with this new study – most obviously the reliance on static photographic stimuli, and also the fact that the research didn’t involve mothers or fathers interacting with their own offspring. It’s also worth highlighting that the use of infant dummies has been associated with positive outcomes, most notably reduced risk of sudden infant death when used during sleep. Some parents might also counter the current findings with the argument that, by soothing their babies’ distress, strategic use of dummies actually has emotional benefits for their babies.
_________________________________ Rychlowska, M., Korb, S., Brauer, M., Droit-Volet, S., Augustinova, M., Zinner, L., & Niedenthal, P. (2014). Pacifiers Disrupt Adults’ Responses to Infants’ Emotions Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36 (4), 299-308 DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2014.915217