Field of Science

Having solved the question of monkeys & humans, I move on to children and adults

Newborns are incredibly smart. They appear to either be born into the world knowing many different things (the difference between Dutch and Japanese, for instance), or they learn them in a blink of an eye. On the other hand, toddlers are blindingly stupid. Unlike infants, toddlers don't know that a ball can't roll through a solid wall. What is going on?

First, the evidence. Construct a ramp. Let a ball roll down the ramp until it hits a barrier (like a small wall). The ball will probably bounce a little and rest in front of the wall. Now let an infant watch this demonstration, but with a screen blocking the infant's view of the area around the barrier. That is, the infant sees the ball roll down a ramp and go behind a screen but not come out the other side. The infant can also see that there is barrier behind the screen. If you then lift the screen and show the ball resting beyond the barrier -- implying that the ball went through the solid barrier, the infant acts startled (specifically, the infant will look longer than if the ball was resting in front of the barrier as it should be).

Now, do a similar experiment with a toddler. The main difference is there are doors in the screen, one before the barrier and one after. The toddler watches the ball roll down the ramp, and their task is to open the correct door to pull out the ball. Toddlers cannot do this. They seem to guess randomly.

Here is another odd example. It's been known for many decades that three-year-olds do not understand false beliefs. One version of the task looks something like this. There are two boxes, one red and one green. They watch Elmo hide some candy in the red box and then leave. Cookie Monster comes by and takes the candy and moves it from the red box to the green box. Then Elmo returns. "Where," you ask the child, "is Elmo going to look for his candy?"

"In the green box," the child will reply. This has been taken as evidence that young children don't yet understand that other people have beliefs that can contradict reality. (Here's a related, more recent finding.)

However, Kristine Onishi and Renee Baillargeon showed in 2005 that 15-month-old infants can predict where Elmo will look, but instead of a verbal or pointing task, they just measured infant surprise (again, in terms of looking time). (Strictly speaking, they did not use "Elmo," but this isn't a major point.)

So why do infants succeed at these tasks -- and many others -- when you measure where they look, while toddlers are unable to perform verbal and pointing tasks that rely on the very same information?

One possibility is that toddlers lose an ability that they had as infants, though this seems bizarre and unlikely.

Another possibility I've heard is that the verbal and pointing tasks put greater demands on memory, executive functioning and other "difficult" processes that aren't required in the infant tasks. One piece of evidence is that the toddlers fail on the ball task described above even if you let them watch the ball go down the ramp, hit the wall and stop and then lower the curtain with two doors and make them "guess" which door the ball is behind.

A third possibility is something very similar to Marc Hauser's proposal for non-human primate thought. Children are born with many different cognitive systems, but only during development do they begin to link up, allowing the child to use information from one system in another system. This makes some intuitive sense, since we all know that even as adults, we can't always use all the information we have available. For instance, you may know perfectly well that if you don't put your keys in the same place every day, you won't be able to find them, put you still lose your keys anyway. Or you may know how to act at that fancy reception, but still goof up and make a fool of yourself.

Of course, as you can see from my examples, this last hypothesis may be hard to distinguish from the memory hypothesis. Thoughts?

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