Context before vocabulary: New research shows babies as young as 6 months use it to integrate learning

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(Natural News) Babies are naturally curious, and their drive to explore the world around them can help them become fast learners. A recent study has even discovered that infants as young as six months old can read contextual clues to find faces.

Researchers have confirmed that despite being unable to verbally communicate, babies can still learn and use contextual cues to their advantage, such as locating things of interest like specific faces, even when they’re only six months old. The researchers themselves were shocked by the discovery because this might help prevent signs of developmental issues like autism earlier than currently possible.

Kristen Tummeltshammer from Brown University said, “It was pretty surprising to find that six-month-olds were capable of this memory-guided attention.” Tummeltshammer, who led the study, added, “We didn’t expect them to be so successful so young.”

The experiment, published in Developmental Science, monitored babies that showed a remarkable improvement in locating faces in repeated scenes. However, the infants were not as accurate or as fast when it came to locating the faces in new scenes.

Senior author Dima Amso, an associate professor in Brown‘s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, explained that this discovery concerning infants who can “recognize and exploit patterns of context” gives new and important insights into typical and possibly atypical brain development.

Amso shared, “What that means is that they are efficient in using the structure in their environment to maximize attentional resources on the one hand and to reduce uncertainty and distraction on the other. A critical question in our lab has been whether infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, especially autism spectrum disorders, have differences in the way that they process visual information, and whether this would impact future learning and attention.”


The experiment

For the study, Tummeltshammer and Amso observed 46 healthy and full-term infants who were either six or 10 months old in their lab. The infants were then asked to play a game of “find the faces.” While seated on a parent’s lap, the babies watched a screen which showed a series of arrangements of four colored shapes. The shapes would turn around, and one would reveal a face in each arrangement. An eye-tracking system measured where the baby looked each time.

In time the babies learned how to always locate the face, especially when two seconds after appearing, the face would be animated and say phrases like “peekaboo.” Overall, each infant viewed 48 arrangements in eight minutes. The babies had little breaks where they watched clips of Elmo, a character from the show “Sesame Street.” According to Tummeltshammer, the breaks helped keep the babies happy and engaged during the game. (Related: Good fathers essential to having healthy, well-balanced children, primate research finds.)

Based on several measures reported in the study, the babies were able to locate the faces clearly, shared the researchers. The babies were able to consistently reduce the amount of time it took them to find the face in repeated-context scenes as they watched more scenes, but they were unable to do this for new-context scenes.

The infants also improved when it came to “ignoring non-face shapes in repeated-context scenes” throughout the game, but they were once again unable to improve for the new-context scenes. The babies were even able to adapt, and they anticipated where the faces would show up on the screen based on their experiences in the experiment.

Tummeltshammer shared that the difference between the six month old babies and the 10 month old babies weren’t that significant, which implies that the skill could be developed at the younger age. “We think of babies as being quite reactive in how they spread their attention,” said Tummeltshammer.

She concluded, “This helps us recognize that they are actually quite proactive. They are able to use recent memory and to extract what’s common in an environment as a shortcut to be able to locate things quickly.”

You can learn more about how technology can be used in studies like this at

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