If You Think You Know How Babies Think, Think Again

By the time an infant is born, he knows a few things about the world that awaits.

“A newborn baby is already quite adept at recognizing his mother’s voice,” said Steve Reznick ’73, a professor of psychology and director of the department’s program in developmental psychology.

Even in the womb, babies use their developing senses to hear and feel their way around their environment so that at birth, certain sensations already are familiar. But it takes several months before newborn infants can retain these feelings of familiarity moments after a friendly object or sound is removed from their perception.

The emergence of short-term memory is one of the milestones and challenges in infant cognitive development that Reznick will explore as he presents recent findings of his research in “Infant Mind,” an Oct. 17 program of the GAA’s Carolina College for Lifelong Learning.

Reznick identifies short-term memory as a “profound change” in an infant’s cognitive development, and one that dramatically alters the relationship parents have with a child.

Using simple games, Reznick and his colleagues can track an infant’s ability to hold on to the memory of an object after it is gone. Between the ages of 5 and 7 months, a child’s reaction to having a toy taken away and hidden will start to change.

“A 5-month-old will look at you like, ‘OK,’ because it doesn’t remember the thing it was playing with,” Reznick said. But one month later, the child will start to search for the toy. Six-month-old infants have created a memory of the toy that allows them to think about where the toy has gone.

Reznick said that memory is fleeting, lasting only a few seconds. But it marks a turning point in cognitive development because it allows the infant to “hold on to the past and think about what’s going to happen next.”

As the capacity for short-term memory increases, infants begin to have goals. The goals can be simple, such as reaching a rattle by crawling or getting attention by crying, but the ability to remember things that are absent has other consequences for infants.

“One thing they start showing around this age is anxiety when a parent leaves or when a stranger is around,” Reznick said.

These developmental changes are not lost on parents, but they are sometimes misinterpreted. Reznick uses the term “parent perception of infant intentionality” to describe the ways in which parents understand the actions a child takes intentionally.

Reznick said that many cases of child abuse or neglect often are related to an inappropriate perception of what babies are capable of doing intentionally. Parents might think a child cries simply to annoy them or makes a mess to prevent them from doing something else. By understanding a child’s psychological capabilities, parents can more accurately interpret their infant’s actions.

Apart from parenting advice, the applications of research into infant cognitive development range from medicine to state and national law. The debate over the legality of abortion, for example, often hinges on psychological questions such as when life begins or whether a fetus can feel pain. Reznick said that understanding what babies are capable of thinking about – and when – can shed light on these questions.

Reznick also has conducted research to identify preconditions for autism that appear during the first year of life, well before the disorder can be diagnosed. “We ask questions about the baby, picking up on things that parents may not realize are anomalous or atypical,” Reznick said.

Earlier identification of autism can allow parents to seek earlier treatment for their children. But at the same time, Reznick said, it also has the potential to adversely affect the relationship between parent and child in the infant’s earliest stages of development.

Reznick’s interest in the infant mind stems from his research in graduate school. He discovered that the questions he was asking about adult thinking and memory became, he said, “more and more interesting the earlier I got.”

An infant’s ability to create mental representations of people, sounds, objects and sensations increases throughout the first year of life. This ability becomes the foundation for remembering the past, thinking about the future and expressing thoughts through language.

So as the infant approaches his first birthday, he can do more than just recognize his mother’s voice: He has learned to miss her when she is gone, and he begins to formulate the words to call her back.

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