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Babies Know When to Use Their Heads

Even in infancy, learning involves more than imitation, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Even babies know when imitation becomes the sincerest form of mockery.

New research suggests children as young as 14 months old make their own decisions about how to reach specific goals, and they don't always rely on imitation of people around them when they learn to perform physical tasks.

It says most babies were wise enough to use their hands to flick on a light switch even after an adult tried to coax them into using a more awkward method: their foreheads.

The findings, which appear in tomorrow's issue of Nature, suggest this kind of rational decision-making occurs at an earlier stage of development than previously thought.

György Gergely, the head of developmental research at the Institute for Psychology in Budapest, Hungary, has been studying how babies learn goal-directed actions for almost a decade.

Previous studies had suggested young infants can remember and re-enact actions that lead to a specific goal. But Gergely and his colleagues suspected babies don't just copy actions performed by adults to learn, but that they're also capable of choosing a more efficient means to achieve the same goal.

"That's what we call the principle of rational action," says Gergely.

To test their theory, the researchers performed an older experiment with a bit of a twist. In the new experiment, 14-month-old babies watched while a woman demonstrated turning on a light by touching it with her forehead.

The earlier study found children imitated the movement to turn on the light, and researchers concluded the babies were automatically copying the motion.

Here's the twist: Gergely and his colleagues suspected the infants were clever enough to notice whether or not the adult performing the task has his or her hands free. So, they had the woman drape a blanket around her shoulders, but the children could first see the woman's hands were free, placed on the table on either side of the light.

After watching the woman turning on the light with her forehead, 69 percent of the children imitated turning on the light with their head. That was similar to the earlier study results.

Then, pretending she was cold, the woman held the blanket close, visibly occupying both hands. After watching the woman turn on the light with her head, the percentage of children who continued to use their head to switch on the light dropped to 21 percent.

The remaining 79 percent used their hands. "The baby has the capacity to evaluate what is the most rational way to get to the goal," Gergely says.

John S. Watson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says the researchers theorize that in the infants' minds, the woman's occupied hands left little choice about using the forehead to switch on the light.

Since the babies' hands were free, it made more sense to use their hands -- a more efficient choice. "The child made a selective choice between its hands and its head, and selected [the hands] on rational grounds," says Watson.

When the woman's hands were free, this suggested there was some advantage to using her forehead.

"It's a wonderful study," says Watson. "If it's right, it says that humans come into the world with an endowment of mechanisms of mind which are much, much more than we thought in the last century by far."

"But we need to be cautious," he says, adding this finding must be confirmed.

What to Do: Check out this chapter on infant learning from this online book, "How People Learn," or read this excerpt from "The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn."

SOURCES: Interviews with György Gergely, Ph.D., head, Department of Developmental Research, Institute for Psychology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary; John S. Watson, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif.; Feb. 14, 2002, Nature
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