Infants learn to learn

26 Sep 2023

From a helpless newborn to a lively babbling and dancing toddler: within the first few years of life babies learn a great deal and they learn incredibly fast. How do they do this? Previous research already showed babies tend to focus their attention to things they can learn from and get distracted when there's nothing more to learn. A new study shows an even more advanced skill: infants can learn to learn!

Predicting shapes
We invited 8-month-old babies (and their parents) to the lab and presented a shape in a certain sequence on a computer screen while measuring their eye movements. For example, a heart first appeared on the left upper part of the screen, then the right lower part, then the left upper part again. The sequence followed a certain rule: it was most likely to appear on the left upper side. Over time infants understood this rule and became better in predicting (with their gaze) where the heart would appear next. In other words, they learned!

Generalising the rule
Pretty cool, right!? But that's not all. Even more impressive is that they could generalise this rule to a new situation. When we showed them another shape, that was most likely to appear in another corner, infants figured out a more general rule: every shape had its preferred corner! This helped them to learn even faster where a new shape was most likely to appear.

Learning machines
In other words, babies of only 8 months old can learn a new learning strategy by themselves. Don't let their cute appearance fool you: babies are sophisticated learners!