Scientists figure out why babies are smart

February 24th, 2009 - 1:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 24 (IANS) Researchers are trying to unravel the mysteries of a baby’s intelligence, who develop the ability to learn a task and to remember how to perform it again, even as early as three months.
Pressing a lever to make a toy train go round may be child’s play, but for Rutgers University’s Carolyn Rovee-Collier and Barbara Zjawin, it’s also a key to unlocking the mystery of how infants’ brains develop - and to challenging conventional thinking along the way.

Using a miniature train in a pink-framed tank decorated with the icons of childhood - Oscar the Grouch, Winnie the Pooh, and Goofy - the professor and her students conduct studies to determine whether a baby’s memory will change if his or her surroundings change.

Her findings have an impact on how brain-damaged children and adults are treated, and also give experts insight into the role of timing in learning and remembering.

Rovee-Collier was among the first researchers to propose that babies as young as three months have the ability to learn a task and to remember how to perform it again later - in essence exhibiting relational learning and memory at a stage when researchers traditionally believed those faculties did not yet exist in the developing brain.

“It took years to get my initial study published - years,” the scholar said. “Conventional wisdom was that babies did not have the neural capacity to associate what they did with an outcome. I met with a lot of resistance from the establishment when I tried to show otherwise.”

Rovee-Collier’s son, Benjamin, now a financial planner in Pittsburgh, played an unwitting but vital role in transforming the world of psychological research. A frazzled young graduate student at Brown University with a dissertation to finish and prelims to take, Carolyn Rovee-Collier was tending Benjamin, then a colicky infant who cried for hours on end.

Only two things could quiet him: taking rides in Rovee-Collier’s battered ‘62 Volkswagen, and watching the dancing figures on an overhead crib mobile that was powered by mom.

Reasoning that she could harness the energy of Benjamin’s tiny legs as he writhed in pain, Rovee-Collier took the belt off her dress one day and attached one end of it to Benjamin’s ankle and the other to the mobile.

Every kick by the baby moved the toy figures and in turn distracted and quieted him. Very rapidly, the six-week-old learned that he could move the figures by kicking and thereby comfort himself - and a research project was born, said a Rutgers release written by Fredda Sacharow.

“The harder or faster he kicked, the more the mobile would bounce and swing,” Rovee-Collier recalled recently. “He was eight-weeks old before I began to realise that learning was involved - and babies weren’t supposed to learn that sort of thing at his age,” she said, according to a Rutgers’ release.

Rovee-Collier and Zjawin agree that they are impressed by the level of ability these smallest of babies exhibit. “I am in awe of babies’ brains and their capabilities,” Rovee-Collier said.

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