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Infants Are Able to Learn Abstract Rules Visually

Summary: Babies as young as three months old can learn patterns by looking at the world around them, researchers report.

Source: Northwestern University.

Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.

For the first time, the researchers show that 3- and 4-month-old infants can successfully detect visual patterns and generalize them to new sequences.

Throughout the animal kingdom, being able to detect not only objects and events, but also the relations among them, is key to survival. Among humans, this capacity is exceptionally abstract. When we learn a rule or pattern in one domain, such as an alternating pattern of lights, we readily abstract this pattern and apply it to another domain — for example, an alternating pattern of sounds.

This ability, known as “abstract rule learning,” is a signature of human perception and cognition. What we do not know is how early it develops.

Prior research documented that 4-month-old infants successfully abstract rules from speech sounds and tone sequences, but failed to abstract rules in the visual domain, such as from patterns of objects. This presented a puzzle: Why were infants successful at detecting abstract patterns from the sounds that they heard, but not from the objects they saw?

New research from Sandra Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, and her Northwestern colleagues, former doctoral student Brock Ferguson, and Steven Franconeri, professor of psychology, solves this puzzle.

“If you present infants with the stimuli in a more appropriate way for the visual system, they can learn abstract rules visually, just as they can from speech,” Ferguson said.

The researchers showed 40 infants patterned sequences of different kinds of dogs. For example, infants learning an “ABA” pattern might see a picture of an Alaskan malamute (A) followed by a picture of a German shepherd (B), and finally another Alaskan malamute (A). Infants saw several “ABA” sequences, each time with different kinds of dogs.

Then, the researchers presented infants with two new sequences with new kinds of dogs that the infants had not yet seen. The elements in each sequence were identical — only the pattern in which they were presented differed. One sequence followed the same ABA pattern (terrier, setter, terrier); the other followed a new AAB pattern (terrier, terrier, setter). Measuring how long the infants looked at each of these two sequences allowed the researchers to gauge their attention.

Although the elements in the AAB and ABA sequences were identical, infants noticed the different patterns. This documents infants’ ability to learn abstract rules visually.

a baby

Prior research documented that 4-month-old infants successfully abstract rules from speech sounds and tone sequences, but failed to abstract rules in the visual domain, such as from patterns of objects. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

The infants’ success in this experiment reflects something key about the visual system, Waxman explained. Unlike all prior experiments, infants in this study could see all three images together on the screen. The researchers note that the auditory system most effectively abstracts patterns from sequences that unfold over time (like listening to language or music), while the visual system is better at extracting patterns from sequences that are structured in space.

“Auditory learning is able to get patterns like ABB or ABA, just by hearing them in a sequence,” said Waxman, a faculty fellow in the University’s Institute for Policy Research. “The visual system needs to take a moment to see all the things together.”

The study results indicate that infants are learning such abstract rules through seeing from a very early age.

“The basic capacity of abstract rule learning has its origins in infancy,” Waxman said. “Babies are doing really powerful abstraction from just their observation of the world.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Hilary Hurd Anyaso – Northwestern University
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research in PLOS ONE.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190185

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Northwestern University “Infants Are Able to Learn Abstract Rules Visually.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 21 February 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/babies-visual-abstract-rules-8553/>.
Northwestern University (2018, February 21). Infants Are Able to Learn Abstract Rules Visually. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 21, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/babies-visual-abstract-rules-8553/
Northwestern University “Infants Are Able to Learn Abstract Rules Visually.” http://neurosciencenews.com/babies-visual-abstract-rules-8553/ (accessed February 21, 2018).

Abstract

Very young infants learn abstract rules in the visual modality

Abstracting the structure or ‘rules’ underlying observed patterns is central to mature cognition, yet research with infants suggests this far-reaching capacity is initially restricted to certain stimuli. Infants successfully abstract rules from auditory sequences (e.g., language), but fail when the same rules are presented as visual sequences (e.g., shapes). We propose that this apparent gap between rule learning in the auditory and visual modalities reflects the distinct requirements of the perceptual systems that interface with cognition: The auditory system efficiently extracts patterns from sequences structured in time, but the visual system best extracts patterns from sequences structured in space. Here, we provide the first evidence for this proposal with adults in an abstract rule learning task. We then reveal strong developmental continuity: infants as young as 3 months of age also successfully learn abstract rules in the visual modality when sequences are structured in space. This provides the earliest evidence to date of abstract rule learning in any modality.

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