Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks

Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks

11:37am Apr 07, 2015
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to study how infants use what they already know to motivate future learning.
Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications

To survive, we humans need to be able to do a handful of things: breathe, of course. And drink and eat. Those are obvious.

We're going to focus now on a less obvious — but no less vital — human function: learning. Because new research out today in the journal Science sheds light on the very building blocks of learning.

Imagine an 11-month-old sitting in a high chair opposite a small stage where you might expect, say, a puppet show. Except this is a lab at Johns Hopkins University. Instead of a puppeteer, a researcher is rolling a red and blue striped ball down a ramp, toward a little wall at the bottom.

Even babies seem to know the ball can't go through that wall, though not necessarily because they learned it. It's what some scientists call core knowledge — something, they say, we're born with.

"Some pieces of knowledge are so fundamental in guiding regular, everyday interactions with the environment, navigating through space, reaching out and picking up an object, avoiding an oncoming object — those things are so fundamental to survival that they're really selected for by evolution," says Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Hopkins and one of the researchers behind this study.

Which explains why the baby seems genuinely surprised when the ball rolls down the ramp and does go through the wall — thanks to some sleight of hand by the researchers:

Baby Watches Magic Ball

This is where the learning part of our story kicks in.

Not only did the babies in the study react when the ball seemed to pass through the wall or a toy car floated across the stage ...

Baby Watches Floating Truck

... but their surprise appeared to make them better learners.

When the babies were given new information about these seemingly magical objects — like, the ball also squeaks — they were more likely to retain it.

Baby Chooses Ball

If the ball stopped at the wall, as it did for some infants, they paid less attention to it and were less likely to remember if it also squeaked. As if to say: "It's just a ball. I get it. Who cares?"

The babies were also given a chance to play with the items that had surprised them. Not only did they prefer those to other toys; they played with them in a way that suggested they were trying to learn.

Baby Chooses Truck

"Consider seeing a ball pass through a wall right in front of your eyes," says Aimee Stahl, lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins. "If you were given that ball to explore, you might want to test its solidity by banging it on a solid surface."

Stahl says that's exactly what the babies did. They pounded it on the tray of their high chair.

And the babies who saw that car float across the stage? They just wanted to drop it — to see if it would float again.

In short, says Stahl, "[infants] take surprising events as special opportunities to learn."

This theory, that we're born knowing certain rules of the world, isn't new. We see evidence of it not only in humans but in lots of others species, too.

What's new is this idea: that core knowledge seems to motivate babies to explore things that break those rules and, ultimately, to learn new things.

It's not always nature versus nurture. Sometimes, it's nature doing the nurturing.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To survive, we need to be able to do a handful of things - breathe, drink, eat. We're going to focus now on a less obvious but no less vital human function, learning. New research out today in the journal Science sheds light on the very building blocks of learning in babies. From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner has our report.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The 11-month-old in this video is sitting in a high chair in front of a small stage where you might expect a puppet show. Except this is a lab at Johns Hopkins University. Instead of a puppeteer, a researcher is rolling a red and blue striped ball down a ramp toward a little ball at the bottom. Even babies seem to know the ball can't go through that wall, but not necessarily because they learned it. It's what some scientists call core knowledge - something they say we're born with. Lisa Feigenson is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Hopkins and one of the researchers behind this study.

LISA FEIGENSON: Some pieces of knowledge are so fundamental in guiding regular, everyday interactions with the environment, navigating through space, reaching out and picking up an object, avoiding an oncoming object. Those things are so fundamental to survival that they're really selected for by evolution.

TURNER: So when the ball rolls down the ramp and does go through the wall thanks to some sleight-of-hand by the researchers, that cute baby - she's surprised. And this is where the learning part of our story kicks in. Not only did the babies in the study react when the ball appeared to go through the wall or, say, a toy car floated across the stage, their surprise appeared to make them better learners.

What does this mean? Well, when the babies were given new information about these seemingly magical objects, like the ball also squeaks, the infants were more likely to retain it. But if the ball stopped at the wall as it did for some babies, they paid less attention to it and were less likely to remember if it also squeaked, as if to say, it's just a ball. I get it. Who cares?

In another experiment, the babies were given a chance to play with the items that had surprised them, and not only did they prefer those to other toys, they played with them in a way that suggested they were trying to learn.

AIMEE STAHL: Consider seeing a ball pass through a wall right in front of your eyes.

TURNER: Aimee Stahl is lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins.

STAHL: If you were given that ball to explore, you might want to test its solidity by banging it on a solid surface.

TURNER: Stahl says that's exactly what the babies did. They pounded it on the tray of their highchair.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Boom, boom, boom.

TURNER: And the babies who saw that car float across the stage - they just wanted to drop it to see if it would float again. In short, says Stahl...

STAHL: ...They take surprising events as special opportunities to learn.

TURNER: This theory that we're born knowing certain rules of the world isn't new. Not only do we see evidence of it in humans, but in lots of other species, too. What's new is this idea - that core knowledge motivates babies to explore things that break those rules and ultimately to learn new things. In short, it's not always nature versus nurture. Sometimes it's nature doing the nurturing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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