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Babies lost in (peripersonal) space?

New research could provide an insight into the way that babies understand the world around them and their place within it.

A study led by Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that babies as young as six or seven months are able to actively respond to stimuli and understand them in relation to their own bodies.

In a series of tests, low-frequency buzzers were placed in the hands of babies. Six month old babies would respond to a buzzer being set off by pulling-back or shaking the hand which held the activated buzzer. The tests were repeated with older babies who also looked towards the stimulated hand, indicating a further developed visual awareness.

The babies’ arms were then crossed to see if they were able to appreciate that their hands, and the buzzes, were not in their usual place. The older cohort was more likely than the younger group to recognise that their hands had been crossed to the other side of their body when responding to an activated buzzer. The younger group made more mistakes, showing less awareness that their limbs had moved.

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The results of this study suggest that at six months babies have some comprehension of the world around them and how they can respond to it. The study indicates that a spatial awareness of the body and its physical location, particularly where the limbs are, develops over the first year of life.

While cognitive development theorists such as Jean Piaget have long argued that babies develop through exploring the world with their senses, the question of how our understanding of our own bodies develops has received little consideration until now. The study shows that an awareness of peripersonal space – the way the body relates to its close environment, the space in which it can act – undergoes some significant developments in the first year of life.

Dr Andrew Bremner from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths said: “Research in recent years has demonstrated that even very little babies know a lot about the outside world. This has led many to suggest that we are born with a great deal of the knowledge we need. But these new findings urge us to think differently about early development. Despite having a good grasp of what goes on in the outside world, young babies may have more difficulties in understanding how they themselves, and their bodies, fit into that world.”

An article on the study, ‘Infants lost in (peripersonal) space?’ has been published in the August edition of ‘Trends in Cognitive Sciences’:

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