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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
experiences; they also demonstrate what infants are capable of perceiving, knowing, and remembering. Recovery of interest in a novel speech sound could only occur if infants could recognize the rather subtle difference between “pa” and “ba.” Discovering that very young infants can see, hear, smell, and be particular about what exactly they wish to explore led to an emboldened attitude about the kinds of experimental questions that could be asked. The answers about infant understanding of physical and biological causality, number, and language have been quite remarkable. These studies have profoundly altered scientific understanding of how and when humans begin to grasp the complexities of their worlds. In the next section, we present a few examples of infants’ learning in these domains.
EARLY COMPETENCIES IN THE PRIVILEGED DOMAINS
How do infants learn about the physical world? Research studies have demonstrated that infants as early as 3–4 months of age have the beginnings of useful knowledge. Three examples from many: they understand that objects need support to prevent them from falling; that stationary objects are displaced when they come into contact with moving objects; and that inanimate objects need to be propelled into motion.
Consider the notion of support—that an object cannot be suspended in mid-air. In one study, infants are seated in front of a table that includes a platform. They see an experimenter’s gloved hand reach out from a side window and put a box on top of the platform (possible event) and then withdraw her hand. Alternatively, when the experimenter reaches out from the side window, she places the box beyond the platform, leaving the impression that the box is suspended in mid-air when she withdraws her hand (impossible condition); see Figure 4.1.
Using the visual habituation methodology, studies have found that infants as young as 3 months old look reliably longer at the impossible events. This reaction indicates that infants expect that a box can be stable when a hand releases it onto a platform, but not when there is no supporting platform (Baillargeon et al., 1992; Needham and Baillargeon, 1993; Kolstad and Baillargeon, 1994); see Figure 4.2.
In a study of visual fixation on consistent and inconsistent events with light and heavy objects, Schilling and Clifton (1998) also showed that 9-month-old infants look longer at the physically inconsistent events than those that are consistent with their expectations; see Figure 4.3. Another well-documented example of infants’ early understanding of physical causality is that stationary objects are displaced when hit by moving objects. Research studies have demonstrated that infants as young as 2–1/2 months understand