Babies See More Than We Bargained For

Infants are more in tune with visual communication than previously thought

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Babies as young as 1 year old understand visual communication better than many of us may realize.

So says a new study that suggests that 12-month-olds are as interested in looking at things as we are. And at 14 months, they know when we're looking at something, and they point and try to "talk" to us by focusing on the same object.

"I think it's great for us to know that at 12 months they're singling out what we're looking at," says Rechele Brooks, author of the study that appears in the new issue of Developmental Psychology. "This should help with language and social interaction."

Older babies even babble and point when they think we are looking at something, showing that "they recognize the social aspect" of communicating, adds Brooks, a research associate at the University of Washington's Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning.

The researchers looked at 96 infants, divided into three age groups; 32 babies who were 12 months old, 32 who were 14 months old, and 32 who were 18 months old.

For the first experiment, half the babies in each group were randomly assigned to be in a "closed-eyes" group, the others in an "open-eyes" group. After making eye contact with the infant, a researcher would either close her eyes and turn her head at a certain angle toward a toy, or keep her eyes open and turn her head toward the toy. The babies were considered to be looking at the same toy as the researcher if they turned their heads in the same position and looked at the toy for a minimum of one-third of a second. This is termed "gaze following," Brooks says.

The experiment was repeated four times.

Babies were much less interested in seeing what the researcher was looking at if her eyes were closed. "They noticed your eyes need to be open," Brooks says.

The babies in all three age groups performed similarly. "Ninety percent of babies were looking at toys with me with my eyes open, but only 46 percent when my eyes were closed," she says.

Brooks says it's unlikely that babies nine months of age would realize the significance of the researcher having her eyes open or not. While a 9-month-old can play with a toy or a parent, it's only a bit later that they start to notice that what you are looking at may tell them things, Brooks says.

For the second experiment, a researcher put on a bandana. For half the babies, the researcher placed the bandana on her forehead; for the others she used it to cover her eyes. In both instances, the researcher turned as if to look at something.

The differences in how the babies reacted depended on their ages.

The 12-month-old babies looked about half the time, no matter where the bandana was placed. Among the 14-month-olds, 77 percent of them turned and looked when the researcher could see, and sometimes also cooed or pointed. But when the researcher was blindfolded, they looked only 56 percent of the time, Brooks says.

Eighteen-month-olds performed similarly.

Henry Wellman, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says Brooks' study shows that at a young age, babies are starting to understand how communication works. "Babies understand that even if you're oriented to something but your eyes aren't open, you can't see. This is important."

This finding should help researchers understand how babies learn to talk. Words are about things, and "vision is about that thing," and now we know babies make that connection, Wellman says.

"At an intriguingly early age, babies make visual reference," he says.

What To Do

To read more about babies and communication, visit Charles Sturt University in Australia, or Boys Town National Research Hospital.

SOURCES: Rechele Brooks, Ph.D., research associate, Center for Mind, Brain and Learning, University of Washington, Seattle; Henry Wellman, Ph.D., professor, psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; November 2002 Developmental Psychology

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