How Much do Babies Remember?
How does a baby learn, remember and interact? What factors influence infant learning? The answers to these questions are being investigated at the Mother-Infant Lab run by New Mexico State University's Department of Psychology.
While the lab researchers study infant learning and memory, they do not study what adults remember from childhood. Instead, they study cognitive development, memory and how hormone levels relate to infants' day-to-day learning.
The lab was founded 10 years ago when cognitive psychologist Laura Thompson and anthropologist Wenda Trevathan, who had published the book "Human Birth," were having a discussion. While Trevathan was interested in mothers and infant relationships immediately following birth, Thompson was interested in what was going on inside the mind, how memories form and how people learn.
Thompson said it was a natural collaboration, and the Mother-Infant Lab was created shortly thereafter. While Trevathan has since retired, Thompson continues to study infant learning via the lab.
Examining a population of human beings who do not communicate verbally presents challenges, but the lab has developed several assessments to help with its mission of studying infant learning.
One of the assessments helps measure memory by analyzing levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress and emotional reactivity. Thompson looks at correlations between cortisol levels and how well an infant remembers certain types of stimuli and experiences that they learn in the lab.
Besides testing memory, the lab also measures the way infants process emotional stimuli. Scientists know where in the brain positive and negative emotions are processed. To look at how infants process emotion, the lab analyzes the way babies react to positive and negative sounding voices that are paired with a visual image on a screen. Technicians look at whether babies prefer to see an image on the screen located in a spatial area that is associated with processing either negative or positive emotion.
For example, the left hemisphere controls the right visual field and also processes positive emotion. Does the baby prefer an image on the right portion of the screen if the voice associated with that image is encouraging?
Experiments like these are almost entire studies to themselves. "Even if we ignore stress reactivity it is an interesting and novel contribution to the science," Thompson said.
The overall goal of the research that goes on in the lab is to look at bio-behavioral measures of learning. "We're at a point in science where we're not just looking at cognitive measures or temperament of the baby. We are a lab that looks at the whole baby in the context of the mother-infant interaction and the mother's physiology."
Thompson's lab has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and has been involved in three separate studies throughout its existence. During this time the lab has gathered lots of data that help form foundational knowledge of how infants learn.
According to Thompson, many of those who study an infant population end up not using 30 to 40 percent of their data due to the inherent difficulties of working with babies. However, in spite of studying a population that is prone to crying and sleeping, the baby lab at NMSU has been able to achieve a high success rate and is typically able to use about 80 percent of their data.
Although much data has been collected, Thompson is still looking for participants and says she is trying to get a cross-representation of people who live in the community.
Thompson also feels it's important for parents to understand that the research is about investigating how babies learn and is not an environment where their child or parenting style will be judged. "We're looking at typical behavioral responses; it's not any one parent's particular way of doing things that's being scrutinized."
Not only are the lab researchers continuing to look at infants, but they also are studying how cortisol levels in pregnant women affect learning outcomes of their infants.
Those interested in participating or obtaining information about the study may visit http://web.nmsu.edu/~babylab/ or contact Laura Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Melisa P. Danho.