Infant Development

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What do they know? And when do they know it?

We're not talking about politicians or cover-ups. Those are the basic questions that UW psychology professor Andrew N. Meltzoff has been working to answer about infant development.

A major discovery by Meltzoff published in 1977 showed that newborn infants, only days old, could imitate the facial expressions of adults.footnote 1 Prior to that time, conventional wisdom held that infants either could not see well enough to imitate facial expressions, or they lacked the mental and motor capacities necessary for copying the behavior of adults.

The experiments were elaborately designed to avoid bias or spurious results. Babies were tested by showing them four different gestures: poking out the tongue, protruding the lips, opening the mouth, and finger movements. In all four categories, the babies produced more correct responses than not.

Meltzoff's discovery helped revise traditional theory and is now part of virtually every introductory psychology textbook. The finding, which received wide coverage in the print and broadcast media at the time,footnote 2comma footnote 3 is now included in standard reference works.

Older infants will imitate the actions they see on television, Meltzoff further discovered. Babies as young as 14 months were able to learn how to manipulate a toy they had never seen before by watching a demonstration on television.footnote 4 That finding overthrew the standard theory of perception, which held that it took several years of experience with pictures, and perhaps primitive language skills, to understand that two-dimensional images can represent three-dimensional reality.footnote 5 Meltzoff's findings suggest this is an early-developing skill in human infancy: a primitive grasp of symbols that underlies language rather than deriving from it.

The research findings have entered into national discussions about childhood television programming. Meltzoff's results suggest that television and computer screens have the potential to educate even very young children.

  1. Science, 198, 75 (1977).
  2. "Putting a New Face on Baby," The New York Times, Oct. 9, 1977.
  3. "Babies: What do they know? When do they know it?" Time, Aug. 15, 1983 (cover story).
  4. Child Development, 59, 1221 (1988).
  5. "Infants Under 2 Seem to Learn From TV," Daniel Goleman, The New York Times, Nov., 22, 1988.

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