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Babies use context to identify faces and objects
Just six months into their life, babies have the capacity to learn, remember and use cues from the world around them to guide their search for objects of interest — such as faces — according to a new Brown University study.
"It was pretty surprising to find that 6-month-olds were capable of this memory-guided attention. We didn't expect them to be so successful so young."
Kristen Tummeltshammer, postdoctoral scholar at Brown University and lead author on the paper.
In the experiment described in Developmental Science, babies showed steady improvement in finding faces in repeated scenes, but didn't get any quicker or more accurate in finding faces in new scenes. Senior author Dima Amso, an associate professor in Brown's Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, says the finding that infants can recognize and exploit patterns of context, provides important insight into typical, and possibly atypical, brain development.
"What that means is they are efficient in using structure in their environment to maximize attention on one hand and reduce uncertainty and distraction on the other," Amso explains. "A critical question in our lab is whether infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, especially autism spectrum disorders, have differences in the way they process visual information — and whether this might impact future learning and attention."
To make the findings, Tummeltshammer and Amso invited 46 healthy, full-term infants, either 6 or 10 months old, to their lab to play a little game of 'finding faces.'
Seated on a parent's lap, the babies simply had to watch a series of four colored shapes on a screen. In each scene, the shapes would turn around with one revealing a face. An eye-tracking system measured where on the screen the baby looked.
Eventually, babies always looked at the face, especially as the face would become animated and say words phrases such as "peek-a-boo" after two seconds. In all, each baby saw 48 arranged scenes over eight minutes, between each scene they watched clips of Elmo from "Sesame Street." According to Tummeltshammer, Elmo helped keep the babies (and maybe their parents) engaged and happy. A reward.
The trick to be 'learned' found through the experiment:
In this way, babies saw faces both in new and in repeated contexts. If babies noticed a repeated context pattern, remembered it and put it to use, the baby should be quicker and more accurate in finding that face when it popped up in a similar scene.
By several measures reported in the study, babies clearly demonstrated they have the capacity to remember patterns and anticipate results. For example, as they viewed more scenes, babies consistently reduced the time it took to find a face in repeated-context scenes. But not in random, new-context scenes.
Babies also became better over time at ignoring non-face shapes in scenes with repeated context. But again, didn't show improvement in randomly ordered, new-context scenes.
Babies had learned to anticipate where faces would be located on the screen based on previous experience.
Tummeltshammer noted there was little difference between 6-month-old and 10-month-old performance, suggesting this cognitive skill was developed at the younger age of 6 months.
In new research, Tummeltshammer and Amso plan to experiment with more realistic scenes. For example, a more real-world challenge might be finding a parent's familiar and comforting face across a holiday dinner table with many faces.
But even from this simpler experimental setting, their ability is clearly established.
"We think of babies as being quite reactive in how they spread their attention," Tummeltshammer said. "This helps us recognize that they are actually quite proactive. They are able to use recent memory and to extract what's common in an environment as a shortcut to be able to locate things quickly."
The visual context in which an object or face resides can provide useful top-down information for guiding attention orienting, object recognition, and visual search. Although infants have demonstrated sensitivity to covariation in spatial arrays, it is presently unclear whether they can use rapidly acquired contextual knowledge to guide attention during visual search. In this eye-tracking experiment, 6- and 10-month-old infants searched for a target face hidden among colorful distracter shapes. Targets appeared in Old or New visual contexts, depending on whether the visual search arrays (defined by the spatial configuration, shape and color of component items in the search display) were repeated or newly generated throughout the experiment. Targets in Old contexts appeared in the same location within the same configuration, such that context covaried with target location. Both 6- and 10-month-olds successfully distinguished between Old and New contexts, exhibiting faster search times, fewer looks at distracters, and more anticipation of targets when contexts repeated. This initial demonstration of contextual cueing effects in infants indicates that they can use top-down information to facilitate orienting during memory-guided visual search.
• Six- and 10-month-old infants orient attention using rapidly acquired top-down knowledge about the structure of the visual environment.
• Further, top-down contextual knowledge facilitates infants’ visual search behavior, as evidenced by shorter latencies, less looking at distracters, and more target anticipation.
• The presence of contextual cueing effects in young infants demonstrates the successful coordination of rudimentary learning, memory, and attention skills: namely, the rapid extraction of patterns of spatial covariation, maintenance and retrieval of task-relevant information in working memory, and performance of a simple search for a physically salient target.
Authors: Kristen Tummeltshammer, Dima Amso
Funding Information This work was funded in part by a James S. McDonnell Scholar Award for Understanding Human Cognition to DA, and an NRSA fellowship (1-F32-MH108278-01) to KT from the National Institutes of Health. A James S. McDonnell Scholar Award and the National Institutes of Health (1-F32-MH108278-01) funded the research.
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Sitting in mom's lap, an infant gazes at the screen, ready to demonstrate how babies use context
to direct their attention. Image credit: Kristen Tummeltshammer, Brown University