Young infants can see and learn patterns in the world around them, NU researchers find


Source: Brock Ferguson

Brock Ferguson. Ferguson is part of a team of Northwestern researchers who recently discovered that infants as young as 3 months old can see and learn patterns in the world around them.

Alane Lim, Reporter

When babies experience the world around them — hear the sounds, see the sights — their brains are doing a lot to process that information.

“While you’re just plain old loving your babies, talking to them, letting them observe the world, they’re doing this very hard, very sophisticated kind of learning and reasoning,” psychology Prof. Sandra Waxman said.

Waxman is part of a team of Northwestern researchers who recently discovered that infants as young as 3 months old can see and learn patterns in the world around them. The study — which was co-authored by Waxman, psychology Prof. Steven Franconeri and former graduate student Brock Ferguson — was published January in the journal PLOS One, according to a Feb. 22 news release.

Waxman said that previous studies had shown that infants about 4 months old could learn patterns in sounds. For example, Waxman said, if they heard “la ti ti,” and “bo fu fu,” they would learn that the two phrases had a similar pattern, “ABB,” even if the sounds themselves were different. In an “ABB” pattern, the first element is different and the next two are the same, Ferguson said.

However, infants did not “consistently” learn the same patterns when they were presented with “visual stimuli” instead of sounds, Waxman said.

“This presents a real puzzle,” Waxman said. “If this capacity is there for the infant mind at age 3 or 4 months, why is it limited to the acoustic kind of stuff and not the visual kind of stuff?”

According to the release, some infants in the study saw images of different dogs patterned in sequences like “ABA,” and were presented several “ABA” patterns with various breeds of dogs. Infants were then shown “ABA” or “AAB” patterns with new kinds of dogs, and noticed the difference between the two patterns even though the pictures of the dogs in the patterns were the same — showing the infants can learn these patterns visually, the release noted.

The team also discovered that it was important to present elements in a way that was “best suited” for the “sensory modality” being investigated, like vision or hearing, Waxman added.

Ferguson said that researchers previously showed images one by one on a screen, like a triangle, then a square, then a triangle again. That is not ideal for the brain’s “visual system,” Waxman said.

“It has to do with how the visual system apprehends information from the world,” Waxman said. “It scans the world. It quickly scans all the time. The acoustic system can’t.”

According to the release, infants in the study saw all three images on the screen together at the same time, contrasting previous work.

Waxman said that humans process language over time. People wouldn’t understand the words “dog” and “bucket” if they were said at the same time, she added.

Ferguson added that at its heart, the study is about “abstract learning.” It offers some of the “earliest evidence” that very young infants are able to learn a “pattern of same and different” from one set of images and generalizing that pattern to new sets of images, he said.

Ferguson said that researchers have been interested in abstract learning for a long time.

“This question of, how do we learn something and then generalize what we’ve learned to new situations, new objects, new people … is always been one that’s fascinating,” Ferguson said. “But … it’s one that’s very difficult to explain.”

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