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Reasonable Babies

June 3, 2011

Rheanna Sand

 

Everyone knows that babies are cute. And messy. But did you know that babies can also use probabilistic inference mechanisms to predict the outcome of new situations? Didn't think so.

The ability to predict what will happen based on past experience is not unique to humans. What separates us from the pack is "pure reasoning," or predicting the outcome of completely new events. Our brains integrate several sources of information to make a snap decision, giving us a distinct advantage in all aspects of survival. Amazingly, new research shows we develop this ability in the first year of life.

Erno Teglas and colleagues give an example of pure reasoning: from the configuration below, which colour of block is more likely to fall if the table is bumped? Factors like the relative number, their proximity to the edge, and the height of the stacks interact in a complex way in your decision-making process.

 



By the way, if you didn't guess red, yellow, red, yellow, something is wrong with your brain. Just kidding of course. But not really.

Now, babies can't be given this exact test, for obvious reasons. Instead, these researchers showed the 12-month-olds some simple animations and measured "looking time," with longer times signalling more surprise. In one test, they bounced red and blue shapes in a circle with a door through which one of the shapes would escape. Just before the shape popped out, the view was obscured.

 

The reactions of the babies were surprisingly logical: if there were more blue shapes, they were surprised to see red emerge. If the red shape was closest to the door, they were surprised to see blue. Unless more time passed, in which case they were less surprised to see blue. The year-old minds, in the end, were consistent with a "Bayesian ideal observer embodying abstract principles of object motion."

Meaning those little brains are much smarter than their size may suggest. Never underestimate the power of baby.

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