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Jan 28 2012

Babies are smarter than we think

I have written before (here and here) about how babies, even before they speak, have an intuitive sense of justice and fairness, suggesting that embryonic versions of those values are hard-wired into us by evolution. The more sophisticated formulations of justice that we now have are built by culture upon those foundations.

We have also known for some time that babies have a simple sense of number and addition such as that one plus one makes two. There has been growing recognition that they also have intuitive physics knowledge and a new study confirms that.

In a review of related scientific literature from the past 30 years, vanMarle and Susan Hespos of Northwestern University found that the evidence for intuitive physics occurs in infants as young as two months – the earliest age at which testing can occur. At that age, infants show an understanding that unsupported objects will fall and that hidden objects do not cease to exist. Scientific testing also has shown that by five months, infants have an expectation that non-cohesive substances like sand or water are not solid. In a previous publication, vanMarle found that children as young as 10 months consistently choose larger amounts when presented with two different amounts of food substance.

It seems like babies are born with the kinds of abilities that are consistent with an empirical and scientific attitude towards the world. This is something that should be reinforced and built upon but instead their thinking in the early years is corrupted with the magical thinking of religions that holds back the full development of their reasoning abilities.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Physicalist

    You think babies are smarter than you think they are? I think you have a problem there . . .

  2. 2
    Robert B.

    The really interesting part is, babies don’t just come pre-installed with physics, they’re pre-installed with wrong physics. Unsupported objects fall, yes, but the infant studies I read about in college discovered that very young children (I forget the exact age in the study I’m thinking of, but it was less than two years and might have been less than one) expect unsupported objects to fall straight down, no matter how they were moving before. In the real world, unsupported objects fall down but also keep whatever side-to-side motion they had when they were dropped.

  3. 3
    Physicalist

    Many grown adults think that objects fall straight down regardless of their original horizontal motion. Studies have found than many (perhaps even a majority?) of adults think that a plane needs to drop bombs when directly over the target to strike it.

    (Some even said that the plane needs to drop the bombs after passing the target — apparently thinking that the wind would blow the bombs backwards . . . )

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