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Parents Naming Objects Shapes Infants’ Development

A study conducted by University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist Lisa Scott suggests that long before they are able to speak, infants hear words that shape their development in important ways. In an experiment, Scott found that the words parents use to name objects influence the developing brain and infants’ understanding of the world far earlier than researchers previously believed.

Scott’s results address a debate among research psychologists about the relation between the development of both language and concepts. While adults readily form abstract concepts of objects, animals, places and people, it has been unclear whether pre-verbal infants can do the same. Some researchers argue that infants under a year of age are extremely limited in their ability to use labels parents provide for objects to help them form concepts.

However, Scott’s experiment suggests that six- to nine-month-old infants are in fact using the labels they hear to form concepts of objects. She believes these early concepts form the basis for later learning. Her findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“Our results suggest parents’ differential labeling of objects leads infants to form very different concepts and to have very different brain responses than when parents label all of the objects with the same name,” she says. “For example, learning that dogs are individuals named ‘Oliver’ or ‘Suzie’ leads to a different understanding of dogs than if all dogs are labeled ‘dog.’” Scott also points out that “sometimes learning individuals is more advantageous than learning categories of things. Learning to recognize individual faces is a prime example of this.”

In this study, Scott followed 38 infants from six to nine months of age. Parents brought their babies to the laboratory once at each of these ages; in between they read a picture book to their infants according to a training schedule. At the two visits to the lab, she measured babies’ ability to tell the difference between images of objects as well as their brain responses to the images.

To measure brain responses, Scott measured signals from 128 recording electrodes in a net-like hat on each baby’s head while he or she looked at photographs of upright or upside-down strollers. This assessed whether the infants exhibited holistic processing, or the tendency to ignore separate parts of an object and instead focus on the whole. Holistic processing is found in adults when they learn individual-level labels for objects. Prior to the training, brain responses of all infants in this experiment were similar.

For the training, Scott randomly assigned the infants to one of two learning groups. Parents of babies in each group were asked to read a picture book to their infants that included photos of six different strollers with labels. One group received a book in which the strollers were each labeled differently with nonsense names such as “Wuggum” or “Zoneep.” Parents in the other group read the same book to their babies except the six strollers were give one generic label, “stroller.”

Scott found that though none of the babies could tell the strollers apart when they were six months old, after training those who learned the different stroller names were able to distinguish between new pictures of strollers at nine months. By contrast, infants who heard the generic label for all strollers were not able to tell the new strollers apart.

Babies in the individual-label group significantly increased their ability to tell the strollers apart from 51 percent before training to 64.7 percent after, while infants who learned the generic labels showed no change, at 48 percent in both the pre- and post-test.

“These results are noteworthy because the strollers used in the discrimination task were not the same strollers as in the training book. Therefore infants took what they learned from the book and applied it to new pictures of strollers, suggesting the formation of a concept,” Scott says.

The findings from this study support her hypothesis that if infants learn different labels for the strollers their brains show a pattern of activity suggestive of holistic processing. This pattern is not present for infants who learned the generic level label. “By naming the strollers individually, parents taught their infants that each stroller is unique and inferred that it is important to know the difference between them.”

This is new evidence suggesting that conceptual learning begins early during the first year of life, even before infants can utter their first words. Scott suggests “parents should actively label objects, animals, people and places during the first year of life to promote conceptual development.”

In the future, the UMass Amherst research psychologist hopes to study what happens when babies are provided with individual-level labels for unfamiliar faces, for example people of a different race, to learn whether individual-level labeling will influence their recognition processing for faces of people they do not often encounter.

Lisa Scott | Newswise Science News
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