Through the Eyes of Children: What babies and kids think of the world around them

Merlyn Deng | merlyn.deng@yale.edu December 27, 2008

Most of us remember little from our infancy, let alone how we saw the world. According to recent research conducted by Yale psychologists, learning in young infants is far more complex than connecting cause and effect.

Data from all over the world suggests that that children rely on a mixture of instincts to immerse themselves in the world. During these early years of development, human beings establish some of their most basic systems of learning and believing.

Drs. Frank Keil and Karen Wynn have been heavily involved in child psychology research for years. While Keil focuses most of his attention on how children conceive the biological world in comparison to the artificial world, Wynn has focused her research on the earliest stages of development in young infants.

Wynn says of her research, “My aim is to understand the inherent nature of the human mind—how our minds are built to understand the world and to interpret incoming information and experiences.” Like Keil, Wynn believes that understanding how youths comprehend the world around them will yield invaluable knowledge about the intuitive learning of humans.

While the general consensus is that infants are little more than naïve beings, these scientists’ research has shown that infants exhibit certain patterns of learning. George Newman GRD’08, who worked in both labs, says that children exhibit complicated, even sophisticated, mechanisms of mentally mapping the world.

These patterns of learning, whether it is determining the morality of others or the purpose of tools, have generated significant insight into how human beings develop.

According to Wynn, “We are able to grasp abstract concepts—such as the concept of ‘order’—even at a very young age. ‘Abstract’ does not equate to ‘must be learned’ or to ‘difficult to learn, understand and represent.’”

Natural bias of disorder

Newman found himself primarily interested in the particular biases present in the learning skills of children. In discussions with other psychology faculty, Newman and his colleagues posed an interesting question: how do children understand what adults comprehend as entropy? That is, do children have an innate sense of how things should be ordered and disordered in this world?

Entropy is a thermodynamics concept normally taught in advanced science classes. Loosely defined, entropy is equated with the tendency of a system to gravitate toward disorder. From the second law of thermodynamics – which states that a system’s entropy is always increasing – we believe that order can only be created by outside input.

While children are certainly not born with such a sophisticated scientific perspective of the world, Newman wondered whether they might already process these ideas as an inherent skill. Skills such as these, Newman believes, could be associated with more complex thought processes that adults have used to reason out concepts as complicated and controversial as evolution and intelligent design.

“It was a really organic process… and finding where these ideas connected historically or in other fields of philosophies of science and evolutionary biology,” Newman explains. Understanding this innate sense, says Keil, may provide insight as to how adults may engage in what he and Newman call “argument from design.”

An obvious example is the arguments underpinning intelligent design in evolutionary biology. One classic argument for intelligent design is that evolution alone could not have created something as complex as the eye.

Newman and colleagues have hypothesized that such an argument could be related to the intuitive thought processes for understanding order and disorder that they have observed in young children and infants.

Appreciation of how the world works, says Newman, stems from early development that does not necessarily hinge upon influences received later in life. Rather, Newman believes that children exhibit patterns of learning that are inherent, and sometimes exclusive, to human nature.

For example, if a person sees a neatly ordered stack of rocks, he or she automatically assumes that there was an intentional agent who created the order. So he asks, “Do very young children, or even infants, appreciate the fact that goal-directed agents – or people – can create order and inanimate objects can’t?”

As a result of what he calls a casual “brainstorming,” Newman spearheaded an experiment that aimed to answer these questions with four to six-year-old children. With Keil, Newman recruited subjects to participate in analyzing a series of scenarios. Separated into groups, these children would be shown various entropy and reverse-entropy situations during which intentional or intelligent agents and inanimate objects would act to create either disorder or order.

Newman explains, “The prediction is: young children should appreciate that people can make either order or disorder. Inanimate objects should only create disorder.”

The researchers presented the children with two plausible scenarios. In a child’s playroom, a window is opened, allowing a strong wind to create disorder in the room. In another scenario, a boy leaves his room and his sister comes in and reorganizes his belongings. The pattern of response was consistent with their expectations.

Next the children were presented with a slightly altered, illogical situation, such as a wind that blew objects into order. When asked to describe why these events happened, however, the children “had an incredibly difficult time articulating the reason for this response,” Newman says. “They were really circular responses that pretty much described the arrangements they were seeing.”

Pre-verbal knowing

After the initial experiments, Newman began to wonder if this bias could be traced further back into infancy. “Maybe this is coming from more of a foundational intuition,” he speculates. Children, he explains, do not have the sophisticated thought that adults appeal to when explaining events causing disorder.

“Even as an adult, [entropy] is a fairly difficult principle to articulate. We can see these types of arrangements in the world, and we don’t have to go through those complicated thought processes,” he says. Instead, he speculates that children’s innate intuitions could originate from a skeletal architecture that provides a foundation for later learning.

For this reason, Newman wanted to see how non-verbal infants would respond to a similar set of experiments. The two labs then developed an experiment geared toward infants just a few months old.

The experiment involved a setup of blocks that would become ordered and disordered after an action. These actions included a rolling ball (an unintentional agent) and a ball with eyes on it (an intellectual agent).

Later experiments used a human hand (representing the intentional agent) and a robotic hand (a non-intellectual agent). In each trial, the infants would see a curtain drop over these blocks while one of these agents would either order or disorder the blocks.

A sample diagram of what the infants saw. In the top part of the figure, a ball rolls through a stack of ordered blocks to disorder them. In the second part of the figure, a ball rolls through a mess of blocks and order is achieved.

“At 12 months of age, they don’t really have language. So they may or may not have picked up a few words. Typically, you’re talking about a non-verbal population,” he says of the experimental subjects. Without a spoken communication to evaluate the subjects, Newman turned to the “looking time methodology” that derives from the pattern that infants tend to look longer at things that surprise them more.

“In the infants, it was the exact same pattern. Instead of selecting, they basically looked equally long at the ordered and disordered outcomes (for the intelligent action) to say ‘this is what I expect,’” he explains. “But with the ball creating order and disorder, they looked significantly longer at the ball creating order.”

By measuring the length of their stares— longer stares denote surprise and confusion— Newman and his associates observed that children were significantly more surprised when the non-intellectual agent would order the blocks, but almost equally surprised when the intellectual agent or the hand ordered and disordered the objects.

In other words, the infants had equal expectations for the agent and the hand’s potential to order and disorder objects. Similar to their reaction to the rolling ball, the children expressed more surprise when these seemingly non-intellectual agents (robotic hands) were able to order the objects, but not when these unintellectual agents created chaos among the blocks.

A baby’s intuition

Having spearheaded the work for both of these projects, Newman says that the results from this research present exciting insight into the very earliest stages of human thought processes.

According to Newman, this project has reaffirmed the idea of certain biases inherent in human thought. He warns that this research does not make any formal statement supporting or disproving intelligent design, however, and people should be cautious about their conclusions about the experiments.

However, Newman suggests that the innate processes of understanding the creation of order that are present at an early age may predispose humans to understand evolution as a result of intelligent design. However, the extent to which these biases bear on our belief systems is still open to interpretation.

Upon reflection, Wynn says that her lab’s child psychology experiments are constantly surprising and exciting. “The studies from my lab help us to understand how the human mind is inherently built,” she explains.

“The studies from my lab [including the order/disorder project] surprise me over and over again with how rich infants’ early understanding of the world is, and the extent to which humans have powerful interpretive processes or ‘biases’, available from very early in development, which support a rich and complex understanding of many facets of the world.”

About the Author
Merlyn Deng is a sophomore in Saybrook College. She is involved in the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Yale, conducts biomedical research, takes photographs for pleasure, and works for Yale Herald Online.

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