Early Childhood

Study: Babies Learn From ‘Just Right’ Experiences

By Julie Rasicot — June 07, 2012 1 min read
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Ever wonder why one toy or video seems to hold a baby’s attention better than another?

Researchers at the University of Rochester say they’ve discovered the reason why and they’ve dubbed it the “Goldilocks effect” in a new study that was published in late May in the journal PLoS ONE.

The team discovered this effect by measuring the attention spans of 72 babies who were 7 and 8 months old in two separate experiments. Eye-tracking devices were used to measure the babies’ attention as they watched video animations of items, like a ball or a toy shovel, popping out of colorful boxes in patterns. Once the babies looked away for one second, a scene ended and another began.

A special statistical model was used to “predict how likely infants were to lose interest based on the complexity of each event depicted in the video,” according to a story on the university’s website.

“Infants end up preferring things that are a little bit surprising, but not too surprising,” Celeste Kidd, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences, said in a video on the university’s website. “We’ve been calling that the ‘Goldilocks effect’ because infants prefer just the right amount of surprisingness or information in what they’re looking at.”

Babies not only lost interest when the video became too predictable, they also stopped watching when the video became too surprising for them.

“One of the implications is that infants are not passive recipients of information. They’re seeking out the information that meets their capabilities,” Richard Aslin, co-author of the study and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, said in the video.

“So it’s kind of like the notion of readiness in education. If you tried to teach a 6-year-old calculus, they just would have no idea of what you’re talking about. It would be way too complicated. On the other hand, if you try to teach a 6-year-old how to add one and one, they would probably find that relatively simple. They need something a little beyond their capabilities in order to challenge them.”

Beyond the interesting insights into the way babies think, the study findings “could have broad implications for human learning at all ages and could lead to tools for earlier diagnosis of attention-related disabilities such as ADHD or autism,” Kidd said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.