Virginia Tech studies baby talk

Eyes tell the story of how infants concentrate

October 06, 2002|By Kevin Miller | Kevin Miller,THE ROANOKE TIMES

BLACKSBURG, Va. - In another 25 years, little James Eddleton may be a superstar detective with the FBI. But for right now, the 9-month-old is struggling to master the puzzle of the disappearing firetruck.

Seated on his mother's lap, James watches intently as Virginia Tech psychologist Martha Ann Bell repeatedly waves a noisy, plastic firetruck in his face and then hides the toy beneath a plastic bucket. Each time Bell hides the truck, she distracts James momentarily and then tells the smiling toddler to point to the appropriate bucket with his eyes.

James' face lights up after each success as if to say, "Piece of cake."

The fourth time, however, Bell stashes the truck beneath a different bucket with James, once again, watching closely. He pauses, but instead of looking toward the appropriate bucket, James looks to where the truck had been hidden so many times before.

Although he was tricked now, James won't be fooled so easily in two months, according to Bell, who has devoted 15 years to studying the mental processes of toddlers.

Hundreds of babies like James have come through Virginia Tech's Infant Perception Lab and Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, volunteered by parents interested in helping out the growing science of infant psychology. In addition to the pictures of their children in goofy-looking scientific hats, many parents return home with a better sense of why their children behave the way they do, not to mention a few valuable tidbits from experts on baby babble.

Educational process

"One of the things that is really unfortunate about our society is that parents with infants don't have anyone outside of their pediatrician to turn to when an infant is developing," said Robin Panneton Cooper, an associate professor of psychology who runs Tech's Infant Perception Lab. "And you're not going to call your pediatrician with every question. So we are helping educate them about what they can do and what they can't do."

For centuries, scientists have steadily unraveled the mystery of how and why the adult human mind does what it does. Yet the infant mind remains largely uncharted territory, hidden within a child with only minimal communication skills and often even less patience for lengthy observations. This despite the commonly accepted dictum that adult personalities are shaped during those first few crucial years.

Cooper and Bell are among the small group of psychologists worldwide devoted to getting inside toddlers' minds to shed light on their development. By understanding how the youngest of children think and how the infant mind develops, Cooper and Bell and their colleagues have revolutionized child rearing during the past 20 to 30 years. Everything from toy color to crib design has been influenced by infant research.

Of course, babies aren't easy subjects to study. They speak a language indecipherable to adults. They fidget. They cry and lack all ability to compromise. Cooper normally screens at least 40 babies to find the 24 she needs for any of her studies.

Because of the language barrier, Cooper depends largely on infants' most expressive feature: their eyes.

Four-month-old Elizabeth Mazzella didn't mind the attention during a recent trip to Cooper's lab in a non-descript office building in downtown Blacksburg. Seated on her mother's lap, Elizabeth was enraptured by a large red dot blinking on the television screen inches from her face.

The blinking dot, Cooper explained, is to grab the babies' attention. Once the infant is concentrating, the dot changes to a rainbow-colored sphere with colors easily seen by infants. At the same time, a woman's high-pitched voice begins talking from the hidden speakers nearby.

"Good morning!" the voice croons in a style normally reserved for infants and dogs. Like a verbal roller coaster, the woman's voice inflection soars to high pitches and then descends with each word.

"How are you today?"

"What are you doing?"

"Let's go for a walk!"

Unbeknownst to the toddler, a lab assistant in the adjacent room is scrupulously watching Elizabeth's eyes via a camera for the slightest movement. Every time Elizabeth looks away - even for a second - the student stops the voice and brings the blinking red dot back onto the screen until Elizabeth focuses again.

When the voice restarts, it is sometimes slower or has less pitch variation. During such exercises, Cooper and her assistants compare the infant's concentration time with the different voices. Little suction cups attached to the babies' chests and bellies also monitor their heart rate for changes.

Turns out, heart rates drop during slower speech, allowing the infant to relax and focus more easily, Cooper said. Babies also pay closer attention when adults vary the pitch of their voice constantly.

"Since we can't communicate through our words, we have to do it through pitch modulation," said Cooper, who opened the Infant Perception Lab in 1994. Not surprisingly, people who have dogs often tend to be more fluent in baby talk, she said.

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