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Babies learn best by being surprised

Surprises help babies learn

Want to help your baby learn? Surprising him with something out of the ordinary will turn him into a scientist, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University.


According to the study, published online in the journal Science, eleven-month-old infants who witnessed something that defied their natural expectations about the world, such as an object behaving in an unexpected way, learned more than they would by observing the object behaving normally.

One test that researchers used was a ball or car going down a ramp. The object rolled toward two walls, which were positioned in tandem and partially obscured by a screen. When the screen was removed, babies saw the object resting against the second wall as if it had passed through the first.

The researchers found that, when the infants saw the ball "pass through" the wall, they were more interested in exploring the ball, and appeared to test its solidity by banging into it.

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Another group of babies saw a ball placed behind one of two screens, whcih were lifted to reveal the ball behind in the same place or behind the second screen.

"The infants' behaviors are not merely reflexive responses to the novelty of surprising outcomes, but instead reflect deeper attempts to learn about aspects of the world that failed to accord with expectations," said study author Aimee Stahl, a doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences.

"Infants are not only equipped with core knowledge about fundamental aspects of the world, but from early in their lives, they harness this knowledge to empower new learning."

Study co-author Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, said that babies appear to use the element of suprirse to learn better.

"For young learners, the world is an incredibly complex place filled with dynamic stimuli," she said. "How do learners know what to focus on and learn more about, and what to ignore? Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning."