Habituation of the Brain

The University of Manchester in England set up a “Babylab” to investigate how babies think. The laboratory measures the diameter of the pupils in eyes 50 times a second as a 9-month-old follows a train that performs the improbable: The train enters a tunnel in one color and comes out another color.

The pioneer in child development was the Swiss, Jean Piaget, who started his experiments in the 1920’s. They led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works. For example, infants do not comprehend that things actually exist when they are not seen. Babies must, Piaget concluded, gradually construct knowledge from experience.

In recent years, however, “nativist” psychologists have come to believe that infants arrive already equipped with some knowledge of the physical world. The Babylab’s director, Sylvan Sirois, has been putting these theories through rigorous tests and his conclusions tend to be more Piagetian. “Babies,” he says, “know squat.”

Infants as young as 3.5 months reliably look longer at an impossible event than at a normal one. His experiments indicate that a baby’s fascination with physically impossible events merely reflects a response to stimuli that are novel. When the 9-month-old sees the blue train come out of the tunnel green a few times, he gets as bored as when the train comes out of the tunnel in the same color it entered. So rather than conclude that infants can understand the concept of an impossibility, the fact may be that they are simply able to perceive some novelty in it. THE CHILD GETS BORED BECAUSE THE BRAIN GETS HABITUATED AND THE ATTENTION LEVEL STEADILY DROPS.

We know that the brain is always active. Stimuli that is constant and familiar to the brain habituates it. You know this from your own experience of really being impressed by something—such as your new home or new car. However, after living in the abode for awhile or driving the car for a few weeks, your awareness of the first thrill you experienced diminishes.

The same is true for the chip made when the heavy pot was accidentally dropped in the kitchen sink. The chipped sink really bothered you at first. Now you hardly notice it.

How does this relate to learning? Novelty drives attention—regardless of age. Teachers who continually create new and novel approaches keep the attention of their students.

In addition, these teachers reap one of the joys from both the profession and from living; they receive the satisfaction that accrues from their own growth.

More information on this topic is available at http://marvinmarshall.com.