Baby geniuses? Speaker goes inside the secret lives of infants

Flanked by two 10-foot-tall photographs of smiling babies, guest speaker Carolyn Rovee-Collier PhD’66 delivered a lecture last night on “The Secret Life of Infants.” The Rutgers University professor of psychology described her radical work on infant memory, including her discovery that babies as young as six weeks old can learn and remember.

“She is one of the premier authorities on infant learning and development, and specifically on children’s memory,” said Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology and founder of what is now Brown’s Center for the Study of Human Development.

Lipsitt told The Herald that Rovee-Collier made the groundbreaking discovery that pre-verbal infants can remember things. “This may seem like a very obvious thing to people nowadays,” he said, “but at one time it was presumed that babies were just a blob, or as William James called it … ‘a booming buzzing confusion.’ “

Rovee-Collier described in her lecture how she and her colleagues outfitted infants with ribbons tied to their ankles, allowing them to control an overhead mobile by kicking their foot. Infants as young as six weeks old caught on within 15 minutes and began moving their feet more, causing the mobile to swing.

This evidence of positive reinforcement in infants flew in the face of all previous infant research. Jean Piaget, a leader in child psychology, had claimed that infants could not learn until five or six months of age, Rovee-Collier said.

Rovee-Collier’s findings encountered much resistance, she said. It was four years before she found a journal to publish her first experiment. “A lot of people are just wedded to a point of view of what babies can do and can’t do,” she told The Herald after the lecture. “And that’s not helpful.”

Using mobiles, train sets, and puppets, she continued to test babies’ abilities to imitate actions, recall long-forgotten tasks, and learn through association. She discovered that babies can learn and remember much more than was previously believed. “I am always surprised,” she said in an interview. “Always.”

At a time when most psychologists believed that infants forget after 75 seconds, her work proved that memories can lie latent in infants for as long as three months, Rovee-Collier said in her lecture. By crafting experiments that took into account babies’ physical lack of coordination and limited attention span, she was able to reveal many cases of memory at ages much younger than psychologists had expected.

Rovee-Collier “was one of the earliest students in our experimental child psychology program,” Lipsitt said. She attended Brown as a graduate student before the undergraduate men’s college began accepting women (speaking to The Herald, she recalled the Pembroke College “pearls girls”).

Coming from the Deep South, she said she adjusted to Brown’s frigid climate with difficulty. “I got colds all the time because I was freezing,” she recalled, and was often in the infirmary. Since she was often the only woman at Brown’s male-dominated health clinic, she sometimes had to stay outside on the porch. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she laughed.

Now teaching psychology at Rutgers, she said she loves it when her students debate her. “I always say, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’ ” she said, laughing, to push them to do research that proves her wrong.

Rovee-Collier has written over 200 articles and edited the journal “Infant Behavior and Development” for 17 years. In 2003, she won experimental psychology’s most prestigious award, the Howard Crosby Warren Medal, from the Society of Experimental Psychologists.

The talk was part of the Lipsitt-Duchin Lecture Series, a partnership between Brown’s Center for the Study of Human Development and Rhode Island Kids Count, a statewide organization that aims to help young children through advocacy and government policy.

“We hope to provide some ideas to participants … and help us make the best possible decisions in terms of public policies that benefit infants and their families,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of R.I. Kids Count.