In this project, Dr. Oakes will examine how infants' everyday experiences shape their learning. Most theories of cognitive development argue for the role of experience in processes such as learning, memory, and perception, but few studies have systematically examined how experience shapes changes in cognition. This project will fill this gap by systematically examining how naturally occurring differences in experience (e.g., living with a pet versus not living with a pet) and experimentally enhanced experience (e.g., being provided with a picture book of unfamiliar animals to read) contributes to infants' learning of, attention to, and perception of images. In the first year of life, as infants interact with the people and animals they encounter, they learn about faces, emotions, language, the behavior typical of particular kinds of animals (e.g., dogs bark and cats meow), etc. This project will enhance our understanding of this important process by examining aspects of looking behavior by 3- to 9-month-old infants as they visually investigate images of animals and human faces. Differences in how long infants look, precisely where they look (e.g. the heads versus the tails of dogs, the eyes versus the ears of human faces) will reveal how infants are perceiving, attending to, and learning about those images. By comparing infants with more or less relevant experience, this project will uncover differences in how infants' previous experience influences their learning about images. Moreover, by experimentally enhancing experience through the provision of picture books created for this study (e.g., exposing an infant who does not have pets to pictures of cats), this project will demonstrate how experience actually induces change in cognitions.

The project will add to our understanding of how experience influences cognitive development both by observing the effect of naturally occurring differences in experience on infants' learning, and by testing the effect of experimentally enhancing infants' experience on their learning. In addition, this project may contribute to our understanding of atypical development and how to intervene with infants at risk for atypical development. That is, although disorders such as Williams Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder develop over time, there is little understanding of what events occur in infancy that influence the outcomes for children with such disorders. Because atypical attention to and visual scanning of images of people and faces are characteristic of these disorders, it is possible that experiences in infancy contribute to the particular developmental trajectory of children with these disorders. A comprehensive understanding of how experience contributes to typical development may be important for both future investigations of such neurodevelopmental disorders and understanding how altering children's experience may help protect them from some of the outcomes associated with such disorders. The results of this work will be broadly disseminated, not only to the scientific community, but also to parents and child care professionals through lectures to parenting groups, participation at the Yolo County Child Development Conference, and television and radio.

Project Report

For decades scientists have understood that experience shapes children's development. However, until recently no research has attempted to understand how experience influences development. The goal of this project was to investigate how daily experience influences infants' developing ability to learn about the world. Specifically, the prediction was that infants actually acquire strategies for learning from their daily experience, and infants essentially learn to learn from that experience. This idea was tested by comparing groups of infants who differed in their every day experience in typical ways. For some of the work, learning about images of animals was examined in infants who did and did not have pets at home. The reasoning was that daily experience with a dog or cat in the home would help infants develop strategies for learning about animals, and infants with pets would be more effective at learning about animals than would be infants without pets. In the other work, infants' learning about novel faces was studied, comparing infants' learning about faces that were more like the faces they experience daily (e.g., the same race as their mothers) to their learning about faces that were less like the faces they experience daily (e.g., a different race from their mothers). The reasoning was that infants would more easily compare familiar race faces to their daily experience, and have an easier time learning abou those faces. Overall, the research conducted for this project revealed that infants' daily experience has a powerful influence on how they learn. Infants as young as 4 months of age have an advantage when learning about images of dogs and cats in the lab if they have pets at home. Using special equipment that provides information about precisely where infants are focusing their eyes, the research in this project showed that 4-month-old infants with pets look more at the head regions of pictures of cats and dogs than do 4-month-old infants without pets. Thus, daily experience with pets seems to shape the strategies infants acquire for learning about pictures of animals, and infants who spend more time in their daily life looking at (and interacting with) dogs and cats have different strategies for learning about pictures of dogs and cats. Similar results were found for infants' looking at and learning about human faces. This project revealed that infants scan differently faces from a familiar race than faces from an unfamiliar race. For example, Caucasian infants, who has daily experience with Caucaisan women's faces (i.e., their mothers) scan pictures of new Causian faces differently than they do pictures of new Asian faces. Similarly, when infants are learning a particular face, their learning for familiar-race faces differs from their learning for unfamiliar-race faces. As was found for daily exposure to pets, daily experience with particular types of faces seems to influence the strategy infants acquire for looking at and learning about novel faces. The main conclusion from this work is that infants' learn how to learn from their daily experience. As infants encounter particular people, animals, objects, and events, those experiences influence the strategies they adopt for learning new people, animals, objects, and events. These results show that infants' learning, and their ability to learn, is influenced by whatever they experience in their daily lives.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Laura Namy
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University of California Davis
United States
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