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Lecture presents findings on developmental learning in infants

Psychologist Karen Adolph played videos of babies in various acts of problem-solving

Clad only in a diaper, a baby perches at the top of a slide and eyes toys at the end of the path below him. Too young to walk, he slides down the slope to end his journey at the rewards he sought.

Variations on this scenario — depicted  in a series of videos psychologist Karen Adolph showed during a lecture Wednesday evening — illustrate the role learning to learn plays in influencing motor skill development, Adolph argued.

Part of the Michael S. Goodman ’74 Memorial Lecture Series, Adolph’s talk, titled “Learning to Move,” attracted a small crowd of students and faculty members — mostly from the Department of Cognitive, Linguistics and Psychological Sciences — to the Friedman Auditorium in Metcalf Chemistry and Research Laboratory.

Using the baby videos and data from her research at the New York University Infant Action Lab, Adolph presented a series of experiments she conducted on infant movement, which demonstrated that as infants learn to problem solve they become better equipped to acquire skills such as walking.

Adolph first demonstrated experiments that monitored the actions and behaviors of infants as they tackled a series of obstacles in the lab, such as going down a slope or crossing a bridge. The results indicated that after weeks of practice, the infants began to modify their footfalls before stepping through the obstacles. This phenomenon, Adolph said, exhibits the concept of flexibility — that infants “select actions adaptively” and modify them when faced with new circumstances.

This flexibility could be based on links between action and perception, Adolph said. Videos and data from her lab demonstrated how infants were influenced by their mothers’ encouragement, as well as their visual and physical engagement with the obstacle when deciding whether to tackle it, she said.

“Infants weigh and integrate multiple sources of information” to guide their actions, she said.

Adolph also argued that four separate learning curves exist for sitting, crawling, cruising and walking. She concluded from her experimental results that infants have to “learn and relearn to move” as they progress to each new stage of movement.

In the videos, novice crawlers repeatedly tackled obstacles beyond their abilities, while experienced crawlers acted according to the circumstances around them. But even experienced crawlers could not adapt their behavior when walking through the obstacles.

These results led Adolph to develop the idea that infants learn to learn — they learn to move through “spontaneous activity, exploration and new solutions.”

Learning through the acquisition of “static facts,” she argued, would not provide infants the flexibility required to navigate environments in which “novelty and variability are rampant.”

This conclusion was met with some criticism from the audience members, who argued that if the infants were actually learning to learn the learning curves should reflect the process of adaptation.

“There must be a flipping point,” said Hugo Bruggeman, assistant professor of CLPS. “At some point your actions do relate to the experiences you have had.”

Students who attended the lecture said they thoroughly enjoyed Adolph’s presentation.

“I definitely enjoyed watching the videos of the babies,” said Emily Thurston ’16, “It was really interesting to watch the different decisions they were making.”


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