Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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25-Sep-2008

Contact: SciPak
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

A baby never forgets



A demonstration of the experiment on infants' repeated search errors.

When babies are about one year old, they do something pretty funny. If you put a toy inside a bucket, and then put it inside a box, they'll keep looking for it in the bucket, even though they've just watched you put it in the box. This behavior has puzzled big sisters and brothers, parents, and psychologists alike for many years.

Now, researchers think they understand what's going on. A new study shows that babies aren't actually super-forgetful. Because of the way their brains work at this age, they just misinterpret what you're doing when you hide their toy.

Most of the time, when we are playing with babies, we talk to them, make a lot of eye contact with them and use excited facial expressions. You might not realize it, but this is actually an important form of teaching for babies.

József Topál and colleagues in Hungary and the United Kingdom experimented with what happens when an adult hides a baby's toy but doesn't use these forms of nonverbal communication. They found that 10-month-old babies are much better at finding their hidden toys when the adult doesn't look at the babies or talk to them while hiding the toy.

The researchers think that when we hide a baby's toy while making eye contact, silly baby talk, etc, the baby thinks we're teaching him where the toy goes, in general. Making generalizations is an important part of learning how the world works, and babies brains are "primed" to learn this skill from older kids and adults through our communication with them.

So, it's that first hiding action – complete with communication from whoever's doing the hiding -- that makes the biggest impression on the baby. He thinks he is being taught that the toy is supposed to go in the bucket and will continue to look there even after the toy is moved to the box.

Fortunately, babies figure things out and stop making this mistake when they're old enough to play hide-and-seek!

This research appears in the 26 September issue of the journal Science.

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