A set of four stars, each a different color, blinks onto a screen. In the space of a few seconds, two of the stars disappear. When they reappear, one has changed color. Can you identify which star has changed?
If you’re an adult, your short-term memory is most likely good enough to pick the correct star each time, says Zsuzsa Kaldy, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UMass Boston.
But at her Infant Cognition Lab in McCormack Hall, Kaldy’s team was surprised to learn that six-month old infants perform nearly as well on the same test.
“We used to think that [babies’] memories were unreliable, or fleeting,” Kaldy says. “But they’re not much worse than ours are.”
Kaldy created the Infant Cognition Lab at UMass Boston in 2003. She estimates she’s seen about 100 babies each year since then, all whose parents respond to invitations to participate in various studies on topics ranging from attention span to memory to language acquisition.
Inside the Infant Cognition Lab, a colorfully decorated waiting room with toys and a changing table adjoins a simple inner office where the testing is done. Parents sit with their children on their laps as a sophisticated eye tracking machine processes 60 images per second to record where babies’ eyes are looking on a screen. Simple animations are shown on a monitor, while the tracker feeds to a nearby computer, which displays the same animation with a tracer that shows the research team what the babies are looking at.
In the case of the star color test, when the tracker detects that the babies are focused on the star that has changed color, this indicates that the babies have remembered the color of each of the four stars, and registered the change.
“We don’t tell the babies what to do for the test because we can’t; obviously they won’t understand,” says Marisa Biondi, research coordinator for the Infant Cognition Lab. “But they still perform this task every time.”
Further testing involves adding stars to the screen, to see how many objects can be remembered before focus is lost. The eye tracking machine can be calibrated for up to ten objects on the screen.
The results, Biondi says, are amazing.
“Considering that they’re babies – they get distracted, start looking at their feet – their overall performance is worse than adults’, but not by much.”
According to the team’s research, adults begin to lose their ability to track the color change at six objects. Babies start losing that ability at five objects.
“Most of the time the limitation is that we aren’t able to ask them what they’ve remembered” – not the babies’ own memories, Kaldy says.
Another study concluding shortly at the lab is a collaboration between Kaldy and Dr. Patricia Ganea of Boston University, loosely titled “Mental Updating Based on Linguistic Information.” In this study, Kaldy and Ganea test 18- to 21-month-olds using the eye tracking machine to find out when toddlers begin to understand language that requires the listener to form a mental image.
“For instance, if I tell you that the department office is down the hall and to the left,” Kaldy explains, “you’ll need to understand the concepts ‘down the hall,’ and ‘to the left.’ We are learning when kids get to this stage of language acquisition.”
The study’s results so far show that 19-month-olds can understand these abstractions, but younger children cannot. Of the older children, “their language production is not at that level yet, but their understanding is."
In the lab, Kaldy and Biondi work with four to five undergraduate assistants, usually students of Kaldy’s who develop an interest in her research. Each study requires a sample of at least 15 babies, and the results from three or four studies are combined for analysis – meaning that at their current rate of five babies seen each week, it takes Kaldy and her team two months or more to find enough babies for their results to be significant.
The quest for babies never ceases, says Kaldy. “As soon as one study is nearing completion, we’re already thinking about what’s next. We are continuously scheduling studies.”
If you are, or know of, a parent with a baby or young child, visit the Infant Cognition Lab online to find out if that child qualifies for a study. Parents are paid between $15 and $20 for participation, and children receive a small gift. Information on current studies can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Eventbrite.