Cild Development examining babies and childrens fabulous capacity
by Dare Baldwin.
Imagine a toddler, perhaps 10 months old, sitting in a high chair
in a kitchen, watching and listening as her parents prepare a meal
and, in the process, speak to each other and to the child. Even
such a seemingly simple, everyday event presents this small child
with an enormous amount of information to interpret. Her parents
move rapidly from place to place, handling many different objects
that they manipulate in diverse ways, all the while maintaining
a steady stream of conversation with one another. Despite the complexity
of her environment, in the coming months and years this child will
somehow find ways to make sense of the flow of language and action.
She will accurately link words to thousands of objects and actions,
and thus add rich levels of meaning to her furiously expanding capacity
Psychologist Dare Baldwin's research is dedicated to solving the
riddle of what she calls humans' "phenomenal ability to acquire
knowledge." A recipient of an NSF Young Investigator Award, which
is designed to support the work of outstanding young faculty in
science and engineering, Baldwin has been focusing much of her attention
on how young children, and even infants, can amass and synthesize
as much information as they do. Baldwin's studies to date suggest
that even at a very young age, infants and children possess a remarkable
ability to accumulate knowledge by inference, from seemingly subtle
clues, as activity and language swirls around them.
An intrigued baby.
On a larger scale, Baldwin says, "I would like to understand all
the different sorts of mechanisms that children can recruit for
the purpose of acquiring knowledge, and in turn learn how knowledge
acquisition affects children's performance across a variety of domains."
Baldwin, who has also been awarded the Distinguished Scientific
Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology by the American
Psychological Association, recently has been involved in a number
of NSF-funded studies related to knowledge-acquisition:
Baldwin and various colleagues investigated young children's sensitivity
to social cues - such as gaze direction, body posture, gestures,
emotional expression and more - as a source of information about
word meaning. The research shows, for instance, that children as
young as 12-18 months spontaneously check where a speaker is looking
when she utters a word that is new to them, and link the word with
the object the speaker is looking at. In this way, infants avoid
many potential word learning errors. They link words with the correct
objects - the ones speakers are indeed referring to - rather than
to whatever objects happen to be capturing their own attention when
new words are heard. "Being so active in using social cues," notes
Baldwin, "radically facilitates children's language learning."
In more recent research, Baldwin and a team of colleagues found
that autistic children lack these skills for making use of social
cues to guide word learning, which leaves them prone to errors in
the word learning process. This research provides evidence for a
connection between autistic children's known deficits in social
understanding and their known delays in acquiring language.
Knowledge vs. Ignorance
With doctoral student Mark Sabbagh, Baldwin has also been studying
whether three and four year old children evaluate another person's
apparent level of knowledge when acquiring a new word. "Understanding
the distinction between knowledge and ignorance, enables one to
be a better world learner," Baldwin explains. "For example, imagine
you've got a three-year-old who's fascinated by dinosaurs, and she
asks her parents to name this or that dinosaur. The adult might
say, "I'm not sure, but it might be a pteranodon." The child should
really not learn that label, because the adult is not sure. At the
very least, she should peg it with some uncertainty." The two researchers
have found that, indeed, young children are less likely to remember
a word linked to an object if an adult speaker expresses uncertainty
about whether the label is correct.
of the environment...
Baldwin's previous research suggests that infants as young as 12-18
months are able to understand something about the intentions that
underlie people's behavior. Infant's abilities in this respect are
remarkable given that human behavior tends to occur in a complex,
rapid and continuous stream. Baldwin is now investigating the origins
of these impressive abilities.
Baldwin wondered if infants, even younger than one year of age,
might have the capacity to identify structure within complex activity.
Would infants recognize the "units of action" in the behavior of
the person they are observing? Would the infants recognize these
units even when the units are not demarcated, in any simple way,
by pauses in the flow of behavior? "For example," she says, "many
of our behaviors fall into a similar pattern: we fix our gaze on
an object, touch it or otherwise manipulate it, release it, and
move our gaze and body-orientation elsewhere, then repeat the process
with another object. If infants can identify each goal-directed
action as a discrete unit, they would have a leg up on discovering
the intentions motivating such activities."
By running a series of experiments with infants, Baldwin and colleagues
collected evidence that infants indeed segment continuously flowing
behavior into units that coincide with the initiation and completion
of intention. The scientists used a series of videotapes of adults
performing simple actions, such as grasping a towel. Sometimes,
the tapes were freeze-framed at the completion of the action; other
times, the tapes were freeze-framed in the middle. The infants showed
only moderate interest in the tapes that showed the complete action.
But they were transfixed by tapes that interrupted the expected
sequence in mid-stream. That, says Baldwin, appears to be "the first
evidence out there that infants this young are sensitive to the
structure inherent in intentional action."
Taken as a whole, Baldwin's research contributes significantly
to our understanding of how social cognition, language, and knowledge
acquisition are linked in the developing brain.