How the baby brain develops from birth

Richard O'Connor hides toys from tots to explore how babies' brains develop learning and memory skills...
02 June 2014

Interview with 

Richard O'Connor, PhD student in Developing Cognition Lab, Cambridge University


A baby explores a model of DNA


Richard O'Connor hides toys from tots to explore how six-month-old babies' brains develop learning and memory skills, as he explained to Ginny Smith...

Richard -   Baby with DNAI'm at the department of psychology in Cambridge and I work with babies, looking at how they learn to search for hidden objects.

Ginny -   So first of all Richard, you're working with 6-month olds, that very young.  What can you actually do with children that young?

Richard -   So usually in psychology, you'd be asking questions and getting them to do verbal tasks.  But obviously, where they're 6 months old, it's more focusing on what they do behaviourally.  So, some of the work that I do is getting them to search hidden objects - so, hiding the toy in a little hiding box and covering it with a cloth and see how they learn to get the toy back.

Ginny -   So, is that the equivalent of peekaboo?  You're playing peekaboo with kids for your job?

Richard -   Yes, in a way.

Ginny -   So, what does that tell you about how babies learn?

Richard -   So, what I'm interested in is how they can learn from specific experiences with specific toys.  So, hiding a certain toy within a certain box to generalising to learning the ability to search for hidden toys across different situations.

Ginny -   So, if they've learned that you hide their cuddly cat and they can get it back, they also generalise that to when you hide their teddy bear?

Richard -   Yeah, that is the idea and learning across different hiding things whether it's underneath a cloth or behind a screen.

Ginny -   And how good are babies at generalising one thing they've learn to something else?

Richard -   Well, it depends on the situation. The age I'm looking at is 6 to 8 months, sometimes they can and sometimes they can't essentially.  It depends on quite how involved they are with the sort of task and game that they're playing.

Ginny -   Is there an age at which they can always pass the task?

Richard -   So, for finding hidden objects, then generally around 7 to 9 months old, they start being able to find it across all different situations.

Ginny -   What do we think is going on in their brain before that?  Did they just think that when it's hidden, it's disappeared and it's not there anymore?

Richard -   So, this is the interesting part of it.  When measuring them that they can search for it in a box - so to say, they tend not to pass until about they're 8 months old, but using different techniques.  So, one technique is based on looking time which is how long they look at different things.  And we use this as a measure of how surprised they are by different events.  With babies from about 3 months, 4 months - if they see that a toy or an object has been hidden, say, behind a screen and then the screen is revealed and the object has disappeared then they tend to be quite surprised by this sort of thing.  So, we infer from this that if they're surprised by this sort of thing going on then they do know that the object is still there.  But for some reason, they aren't quite being able to connect, knowing that the object is still there, with knowing that they have the ability to search for it themselves.

Ginny -   So, it's learning that they can actually interact with the world and affect it in some way.

Richard -   Yes.

Ginny -   Has anyone got any questions on very young babies and how they interact with the world?  Yup!  Someone on the back there...

David -   Hi.  I'm David from Cambridge.  Are you good with children?  How do you keep them entertained while you're putting them through these tasks?

Richard -   So, I suppose you've got just lots different toys, lots of different stimuli going on.

David -   How many did you have in there at one stage?  Is there like rows of babies lying down?

Richard -   Well I suppose, for any given study then I'll be looking at around about 20 or so babies.

David -   Good grief!

Richard -   So, quite a load of effort to get them all in through the door.

Ginny -   I've got a question down here.

Jackie -   Hi.  I'm Jackie and I'm just outside of Cambridge, Bassingbourn.  I just wondered with premature babies, how you then gauge the age of the child because obviously, they've come to the world early and then how that equates with children that weren't premature.

Richard -   Generally speaking, with premature babies, for working out what's their age of development, you take it from their due date.  So, if the baby was born 2 months premature then you would say that they are 6 months when they've reached 8 months in terms of time.

Ginny -   Is that something that carries on when you're looking at older children?  So Sarah, you work with school age children.  Do you still take into account if they were premature?

Sarah -   No, we don't actually.  I think that the differences between children are smaller and smaller as they get older in terms of the importance of the age itself so although we still look at children in terms of the number of months up until kind of the age of 10 let's say.  After that, you would really start to talk in terms of the years and not so much of the months anymore.

Sarah -   I'm Sarah.  I'm from Ohio in the United States.  I was just wondering if this kind of disproves the idea of object permanence like a child, knowing that it's still there, like it does not exist anymore, but they just don't know how to get to it or that they can get to it.

Richard -   Yes, so it's all to do within the realm of object permanence.  So, prior to 3 months, they may not show the sort of surprise and suppose we're moving away from this idea of it being an 'all or nothing' type thing that either they do know that the object is still there or they don't, to know what qualities of the object are they able to remember.  So, they will show memory for certain things like what shape the object was before they'll show memory for things like what colour it was.

Ginny -   So now, it's time to go over to Kate and Hannah for some experiments.  What are you going to do for us first guys?

Kate -   Well, I'm afraid this experiment is a little bit harsh.  We need a volunteer or guinea pig from the audience, someone that's willing to come up and take part in an experiment.  That's very brave of you kind sir.  A big round of applause for this very fine chap.  Please come and join us on stage.  What's your name?

George -   George.

Kate -   George, where are you from?

George -   Bassingbourn.

Kate -   So Hannah, you've got what looks like objects of torture here for George.  What actually are they?

Hannah -   This is a white board with a bulls eye target right in the middle of it and what I'm going to ask you to do is, can you try and move your hand, your finger from your chin to hit the bulls eye and do it repeatedly and really quickly.  I think George is pretty good at that.  That's good coordination there, George.  Can you talk at the same time?  Tell us a joke.

George -   Yeah, hi.

Hannah -   What I'm going to do is change George's world by asking him to put these goggles on.  Now, they're pretty special goggles.

Kate -   They look like they've got prisms on the front.  Is that what's going on, Hannah?

Hannah -   Exactly, yeah.  They've got a big lens here at the front which basically directs light in a wonky angle into George's eye.  So, it's going to give him a really topsy-turvy view of the world.  So, we're going to try and fit these.

Kate -   It's a pretty snazzy look.  How does it feel George?

George -   It feels kind of weird.


Hannah -   Now George, I'm going to ask you to do exactly the same thing again.  So, from your chin to the target really quickly and go.  You're not quite hitting the target there and go.  You're getting closer there George, aren't you?  You're hitting the target as quick as you can.  You're hitting it.  Yes, you've hit the target.

Kate -   Is it feeling easier George as you carry on?

George -   I think you kind of have a technique.  You have to kind of go that way.

Hannah -   Your brain kind of learns to go in the right direction, doesn't it?  Now, what [Rosies'sis going to do, as you continue doing that, is she's going to gently move the goggles off your head and we're going to ask you to continue to hit the bulls eye.  Okay, so keep going and ignore [Rosy] as she starts taking the goggles off after 5 more goes - 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.  You're still a bit wonky and you're going back again.  That's brilliant!  You're hitting the bull's eye.

Kate -   So, what happened there George?  As the goggles got taken off, how did you feel?

George -   It kind of all came back into real life and it wasn't until like one side or anything.

Hannah -   The wonderful George here has got a bit of the brain right back here called the cerebellum.  It's basically involved in helping to control movement.  George adapted his cerebellum and changed probably connections in his brain when we put on those goggles and took them off.  So that he was then able to coordinated his movements depending on how we'd change what the world looked like to him.  So, George has got a very flexible cerebellum that was able to learn from his environment and change the way he reacted to his environment based on the information that was coming in through his eyes.  So, I think we should all give a very big round of applause to George's cerebellum.

Ginny -   Brilliant!  Thanks to that Hannah and Kate. 


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