Element of surprise helps babies learn best: study

WASHINGTON, Apr 4: Infants have innate knowledge about the world, and when their expectations are defied, they learn best, a new study has found.
Researchers demonstrate for the first time that babies learn new things by leveraging the core information with which they are born.
When something surprises a baby, like an object not behaving the way she expects it to, she not only focuses on that object but ultimately learns more about it than from a similar yet predictable object.
“Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning,” said Lisa Feigenson, from the Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
“When babies are surprised, they learn much better, as though they are taking the occasion to try to figure something out about their world,” said Feigenson.
The study involved four experiments with pre-verbal 11-month-old babies, designed to determine whether babies learned more effectively about objects that defied their expectations.
If they did, researchers wondered if babies would also seek out more information about surprising objects and if this exploration meant babies were trying to find explanations for the objects’ strange behaviour.
First the researchers showed the babies both surprising and predictable situations regarding an object. For instance, one group of infants saw a ball roll down a ramp and appear to be stopped by a wall in its path.
Another group saw the ball roll down the ramp and appear to pass – as if by magic – right through the wall.
When the researchers gave the babies new information about the surprising ball, the babies learned significantly better. In fact, the infants showed no evidence of learning about the predictable ball.
Researchers found that the babies chose to explore the ball that had defied their expectations, even more than toys that were brand new but had not done anything surprising.
They found that the babies didn’t just learn more about surprising objects – they wanted to understand them. For instance, when the babies saw the surprising event in which the ball appeared to pass through the wall, they tested the ball’s solidity by banging it on the table.
But when babies saw a different surprising event, in which the ball appeared to hover in midair, they tested the ball’s gravity by dropping it onto the floor.
These results suggest that babies were testing specific hypotheses about the objects’ surprising behaviour.
“The infants’ behaviours are not merely reflexive responses to the novelty of surprising outcomes but instead reflect deeper attempts to learn about aspects of the world that failed to accord with expectations,” said Aimee E Stahl, the paper’s lead author.
The study was published in the journal Science. (PTI)