Checkup: Babies Understand Physics
If you have an infant, or spend time around newborns, you know that they’re not always the life of the party. Most of the time, very young babies are just sort of there, cute little lumps crying and making weird sounds.
But just because it might not seem like there’s much going on with infants doesn’t mean there’s nobody home. Because, according to cognitive scientist Kristy vanMarle, there’s a lot going on in those cute little heads. In fact, babies are natural born physicists.
"We’re thinking along the lines of some kind of implicit or knowledge built into the system that babies probably don’t have access to but that guides their reasoning about the world and they way they think about it. And the way it would drive the reasoning they engage in is by producing expectations. So they see a set of objects in the world and they can predict what those objects might do in the near future."
For example, babies somehow intuitively understand that solid objects can’t pass through each other. And when they see a magic trick that makes two objects appear to pass through each other, they sense that something’s up.
"They’ll look longer at an event like that than they will at an event in which objects behave normally--say they’re coming near each other and they bounce off each other like billiard balls instead of appearing to pass through each other."
In other words, babies know that what they just saw violates the laws of physics, and it kind of freaks them out a little in a way that scientists can measure. Now, human babies are not unique in this regard. Most creatures, even insects, are born with a basic understand of how objects behave in the world. But for vanMarle, recognizing this talent in human babies is particularly useful.
"From a scientific standpoint, it gives us a better idea of what the starting points of cognition are. And if we want to know how to intervene when there are cognitive disorders it’s really important to know what the normal state is."
I’m Jeremy Shere