THURSDAY, May 26 (HealthDay News) -- Gibberish may come out of
the mouths of babes, but their minds are able to form surprisingly
sophisticated expectations about how events should unfold, a new
Joined by colleagues across the globe, a scientist at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a
computational model of preverbal infants' "pure reasoning"
abilities that accurately predicts their surprise at situations
that deviate from basic rules of the physical world.
"This is the first time we've formalized what this notion of expectation is in terms of probability," said co-senior study author Josh Tenenbaum, an associate professor of cognitive science and computation at MIT. "We're quantifying surprise."
The study is published in the May 27 issue of the journal
Sixty 1-year-olds participated in a series of experiments that
gauged how long they would look at animated scenarios that were
more or less consistent with their knowledge of objects' normal
behavior. In one case, the babies were shown four objects -- three
blue, one red -- bouncing around a container. After some time
elapsed, the scene would be covered and one of the objects would be
removed from the container through an opening.
Based on prior research showing that infants look longer at
unexpected events, the study demonstrated they would be surprised
if the object farthest from the opening disappeared when the scene
was blocked very briefly, for 0.4 seconds. With a two-second
interval, they showed surprise only if the red object disappeared
The computational model correctly predicted how long babies
would look at the same exit event under a dozen different scenarios
and varying number of objects, positions and time delays. This
suggests infants reason by mentally simulating possible scenarios
and figuring out which outcome is most likely based on a few
physical principles, Tenenbaum said.
"There has been a lot of interest in the last five to 10 years in the idea that human brains, whether adults or children, can be understood as doing some probabilistic thinking," he said.
The research is part of a larger effort to observe babies at 3
months, 6 months and 12 months, and map out their perceptions of
the physical world, Tenenbaum said. Part of what MIT has dubbed the
Intelligence Initiative, the "3-6-12" project was launched this
year with the goal of deciphering the nature of intelligence and
replicating it in machines.
Tenenbaum is in the midst of developing similar computational
models of infants' "intuitive psychology," or their understanding
of how people act. These models may potentially help scientists
understand what changes in the human brain when a child develops
autism, which often involves an inability to form appropriate
expectations of social behavior.
"This would be a way of getting some traction on what may be going wrong in the first two years of life in these children," he said. "It's very speculative . . . [but] we're laying the foundation for that now."
For more on the development of the young brain, visit the
University of Maine.
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