New research explains how infants learn by looking - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

New research explains how infants learn by looking

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 A new study at the University of Iowa shows that infants take inventory of the things they see; and they create knowledge by looking at and learning about their surroundings.

Researchers say the activities should be viewed as intertwined, rather than considered separately, to fully appreciate how infants gain knowledge and how that knowledge is seared into memory.

"The link between looking and learning is much more intricate than what people have assumed," says John Spencer, a psychology professor at the UI and a co-author on the paper published in the journal Cognitive Science.

The researchers created a mathematical model that mimics, in real time and through months of child development, how infants use looking to understand their environment. Such a model is important because it validates the importance of looking to learning and to forming memories. It also can be adapted by child development specialists to help special-needs children and infants born prematurely to combine looking and learning more effectively.

The model examines the looking-learning behavior of infants as young as 6 weeks through one year of age; through 4,800 simulations at various points in development involving multiple stimuli and tasks. As would be expected, most infants introduced to new objects tend to look at them to gather information about them; once they do, they are "biased" to look away from them in search of something new. In other words, an infant will linger on something that's being shown to it for the first time as it learns about it, and that the "total looking time" will decrease as the infant becomes more familiar with it.

But the researchers found that infants who don't spend a sufficient amount of time studying a new object - in effect, failing to learn about it and to catalog that knowledge into memory - don't catch on as well, which can affect their learning later on.

"Infants need to dwell on things for a while to learn about them," says Sammy Perone, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the paper.

The results underscore the notion that looking is a critical entry point into the cognitive processes in the brain that begin in children nearly from birth. And, "if that's the case, we can manipulate and change what the brain is doing to aid infants born prematurely or who have special needs," Perone adds.

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