Element of surprise helps babies learn, study says

Infants are born with core knowledge of the fundamental aspects of the world, and they learn best when their expectations are defied, a new study from Johns Hopkins University has found.

For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that babies use the innate knowledge they are born with to learn new things. When a situation is surprising, such as an object not behaving the way an infant expects it to, the infant focuses more on that object, and ultimately learns more about it than from a similar object that behaves in a predictable manner.

“Thirty years of research on infant cognition has shown that babies look longer when a situation appears to be surprising rather than a predictable event,” lead researcher Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, told FoxNews.com. “Our question is, why do babies choose to look longer?”

Over a study period of three and a half years, Stahl and Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, conducted four experiments on 110 preverbal 11-month-old infants to observe how they responded to surprising and predictable situations regarding an object.

Surprising situations involved a ball appearing to pass through a solid wall, an object appearing to float in mid-air and an object disappearing and reappearing. Predictable situations were the opposite— a solid wall stopping a ball from rolling through, an object visibly supported by something underneath it, and an object remaining in the same place without disappearing.

The babies who viewed the surprising situation were given the option to explore the object from the experiment or choose a new one.

“Babies preferentially explored the object if it did something surprising rather than a new toy,” Stahl said.

Researchers then observed the infants’ behavior as they interacted with the object involved in the surprising situation. After watching the ball pass through a wall, infants banged the object on the table to test its solidity. Infants who observed an object seemingly floating in mid-air tested its gravity by dropping it to the floor. The infants showed no evidence of learning from the predictable object.

The research revealed that when infants see an object defy their expectations, they learn about that object better, explore that object more, and test relevant hypotheses for that object’s behavior.

“Babies can use their sophisticated prior knowledge of the world to guide what they should learn about in the future,” Stahl said. “When their expectations are violated, this might signal a special opportunity for them to learn.”

An infant’s prior knowledge of the world, or core knowledge, are the aspects of the world that appear to be represented even prior to learning. Previous research has suggested that core knowledge includes the understanding of object solidity as well as object continuity, researchers noted.

While researchers are not suggesting specific guidelines for parents or pediatricians, they are using their findings to do further research into naturalistic learning.

“For the moment, we can say that just like adults babies have predictions about the world that they can use to guide their behavior,” said Stahl.

The study was published in the journal Science.