How babies learn: It’s all in the porridge

“She’s just using a ‘principled inferential process’, dear.”

How do babies decide what to concentrate on as they learn the ways of the world? And how do they keep from being overwhelmed by a world in which everything is new? Surprisingly (or maybe not), they act a lot like adults.

Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, Celeste Kidd and colleagues at the University of Rochester describe how babies learn: they use a “principled inferential process” and “appear to allocate their attention in order to maintain an intermediate level of complexity.”

Say what?

Fortunately Kidd saves the day by naming the process “the Goldilocks Effect.” (Quick refresher: Goldilocks stumbles into the bears’ cottage, finds their porridge to be either too hot or too cold, whines about her porridge-fate until she finally discovers a warm-ish bowl that’s “just right.” She eats it, settles into a “just right” bed, and goes to sleep. When the bears return they do not eat her, for reasons I’ve never quite understood.)

Kidd found that babies tend to spend most of their visual attention on things that are neither too simple nor too complicated. That is, they are attracted to “just right” complexity–enough to stimulate their brains, but not so dull as to put them to sleep, or so complex as to fry their little noggins.

This study confirms what many parents have long known: babies will seek out the level of stimulation in their environment that is appropriate to their learning needs. Bombarding them with extra, too-complex stimulation doesn’t accomplish much, other than to overwhelm them.

Watch a baby and you’ll know how much stimulation is too much. They simply look away when they’ve had enough. Kind of like me in my college calculus class…

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Filed under Development, Newborns, Science

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