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Babies learn from the unexpected, Hopkins research shows

Want to make your baby smarter?

New research by the Johns Hopkins University has found that it may be as simple as throwing some surprises his or her way.

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All babies are born with some natural smarts, but youngsters learn more about the world when this innate intelligence is challenged, cognitive psychologists Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson discovered in a study that will be published Friday in the journal Science.

The researchers took babies, who could not yet talk, through four experiments to prove their theory. They presented the babies with situations they could predict, as well as some that were unexpected, and gauged their reactions.

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The unexpected roused the babies' curiosity. As they tried to figure out what happened, learning was taking place.

Further research is needed to determine how the study results can be applied to child raising and education, but the researchers said it has the potential to help guide the way babies are taught new skills and concepts.

Perhaps a parent could do activities, such as hiding a ball to see if a baby goes to look for it, Stahl said. Or when parents take an older child to a children's museum or science center, they could ask them to predict how magnets and other objects might work.

"This raises some exciting, intriguing questions about whether surprise could be used by parents and teachers to shape how babies learn," Stahl said.

Early childhood is an important developmental period in a person's life because infant brains quickly absorb and process reams of information. A small child will pick up a foreign language easier and faster than a teenager or an adult will.

Studies like the one at Hopkins have the potential to help better leverage that key learning time, said Claire Lerner, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that looks at ways to nurture early development.

One of the indicators of academic success is a child's ability to master a challenge and to confront new experiences with confidence.

"What is so exciting about this research is that the message to parents and other adults who are nurturing young children's development is how much, at such a young age, they are processing and problem solving and figuring out," Lerner said.

Prior research has shown that novelty enhances memory for adults. Novel events stimulate a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which compares new sensory information with existing memories. When something is new, it triggers a rush of the hormone dopamine, which helps the brain store new memories.

What the Hopkins psychologists discovered about the babies is no different from the way adults learn, Stahl and Feigenson wrote in their paper. Scientists, for instance, think more intently, run more experiments and try to develop new theories when they run across an unusual or unexpected finding.

One way the Hopkins researchers studied the children was by using a ball and a wall. They rolled the ball down a ramp and toward the wall. In one trial, the ball hit the wall, as a baby would naturally expect. In the other, the ball passed through a hidden door in the wall, sparking the babies' inquisitiveness.

The babies didn't pay much attention to the ball that hit the wall — the predictable one. But they grabbed the other ball and banged it on the table.

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When shown a ball that appeared to be suspended in air, the babies grabbed it and threw it on the floor.

The response by the infants was not reflexive or automatic, Stahl said, but a contemplative attempt to figure out what happened.

The findings show that when confronted with the unexpected, babies learn about the object better, explore the object more and come up with their own hypothesis for why the object behaved in a certain way.

"Our results show that not only do babies have this sophisticated knowledge about the world, but can use it to find out and learn more," Stahl said. "When things don't go as you would expect them to go, it provides a significant and special opportunity to update your knowledge about it."

Amy Stephens, a Hopkins postdoctoral research fellow, put her daughter Elisabeth in the study. She hopes the research will help in teaching children.

"There is a lot of information and knowledge before they to go to preschool and kindergarten," Stephens said. "We need to have a better understanding of what that foundational knowledge is. What is it that kids already know that we can build from?"

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