Learning time

Baby wearing motion sensors on chest and legs

“I bet Albert Einstein didn’t have to put up with these indignities”

One of the fun things about being a mother interested in psychology is you can enlist your unsuspecting baby into experiments investigating infant cognition, and tell yourself you’re not only contributing to science, but also giving them a new learning experience. Consequently, last week I took my four-month old to the Birkbeck Baby Lab to take part in a study exploring how infants perceive time. Obviously, not being a big talker yet, the researchers needed to find some other way to work out what’s going on my little genius’s brain, so they distributed some sensors around his limbs to pick up muscle twitches, and stuck on a few motion capture pads (the kind worn by actors to get realistic movement in cgi films) for good measure.

Once in the ‘lab’ (a darkened room) the researcher sat in front of my son, said “Ready…go” and after each “go” gently lifted his hands. On the eighth repetition she said “Ready…” but didn’t lift and the sensors detected whether his muscles twitched in anticipation after the same interval as previous lifts – thus indicating that he has a sense of time.

The study is in too early stages to draw any conclusions (other than that my son gets a bit cross if you say “Ready…go” to him too many times) but a previous version of the study, using a videoed version of peek-a-boo in which a teddy bear pops up from behind a screen seven times in a row found that on the eighth time babies’ pupils got wider (indicating surprise) at exactly the moment the bear was supposed to reappear.

What did I learn from this? Firstly, that even young babies have a good sense of time (you only need to watch my son when I sit down on the sofa ready to feed him to know that he’s capable of forming expectations, but it’s interesting to find out just how precise those expectations are). Secondly, that researchers are always looking for innovative ways to test hypotheses: keep an eye on the latest technologies from the movie industry for an idea of what they might come up with next.

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