At first blush, babies seem mostly preoccupied with more mundane biological processes, like eating and pooping and spitting up all over your shirt. This fooled a lot of researchers into believing that babies weren't thinking about anything at all. Scientists coined the term "tabula rasa" -- blank slate -- to describe these "empty" creatures. They regarded infants as merely helpless helpings of cute, controllable, human potential.
Modern research reveals a radically different point of view. We now know that a baby's greatest biological preoccupation involves the organ atop their necks. Infants come preloaded with lots of software in their neural hard drives, most of it having to do with learning. Want some startling examples?
In 1979, University of Washington psychologist Andy Meltzoff stuck out his tongue at a baby that was just 42 minutes old, then sat back to see what happened. After some effort, the baby returned the favor, slowly rolling out his own tongue. Meltzoff stuck his tongue out again. The infant responded in kind. Meltzoff discovered that babies could imitate right from the start of their little lives (or, at least, 42 minutes from the start of their little lives).
That's an extraordinary finding. Imitation involves many sophisticated realizations for babies, from discovering that other people exist in the world to realizing that they have operating body parts, and the same ones as you. That's not a blank slate. That's an amazing, fully operational cognitive slate.
Capitalizing on this finding, Meltzoff designed a series of experiments revealing just how much babies are prewired to learn -- and how sensitive they are to outside influences in pursuit of that goal. Here's one of those experiments:
Yes, infants come equipped with an amazing array of cognitive abilities -- and they are blessed with many intellectual gadgets capable of extending those abilities:
- They understand that size stays constant even when distance changes the appearance of size.
- They display velocity prediction.
- They understand the principle of common fate: The reason the black lines on the basketball move when the ball bounces is because the lines are part of the basketball.
- Infants can discriminate human faces from nonhuman faces at birth and seem to prefer them. From an evolutionary perspective, this latter behavior represents a powerful safety feature. We will be preoccupied with faces most of our lives.
How did babies acquire all of this knowledge before being exposed to the planet? Nobody knows, but they have it, and they put it to good use with astonishing speed and insight. Babies create hypotheses, test them, and then relentlessly appraise their findings with the vigor of a seasoned scientist. This means infants are extraordinarily delightful, surprisingly aggressive learners. They pick up everything.
Which is one reason you want to be careful about what kind of television shows your children watch. You may also want to take a look at the behaviors your kids see most often: yours. I talk much more about what parents need to know in my new book, "Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child From Zero to Five."