A Sudden Burst Of Genius? Scientists Explain How Infant Brains Really Work


Have you ever walked into a room and your infant child seemed to suddenly have picked up a new skill, perhaps overnight? You start jumping around in amazement – your child is a genius! It turns out that their new skill probably wasn’t a sudden stroke of baby genius.

A new study published in Child Development explains why speedy skill acquisition is probably actually a product of longterm development. Young children are in a constant state of observation about the world around them, researchers now believe.

Perhaps you walked in to find your child solving a mechanical task they failed to understand yesterday. They were actually working through that process for days, weeks, and even months.

“This is a question that has bedeviled psychologists for most of the last century. Our data help show how behaviors that we can observe in children are indeed non-linear, showing up in spurts,” study coauthor Koraly Perez-Edgar, professor of psychology at Penn State, revealed.

“However, the underlying forces that help support this observed behavior can be linear. For a long time, there was a debate over whether both of these things could hold true,” they added.

It has long been thought that young children learn in cognitive bursts, a theory that was commercialized by child psychologist Jean Piaget way back in 1936.

Perez-Edgar and colleagues decided to re-test that theory and soon discovered that young kids and their linear and non-linear growth are not mutually exclusive.

The Research Process

To determine their findings researchers recruited 6-month-old infants for the study. The group examined 28 children which included 14 boys and 14 girls. The children were brought to a lab for testing once a month until they turned one-year-old.

During each monthly session, the children were given a cognitive test known as the “a-not-b” test which was developed in the 1950s to measure a baby’s ability to understand object permanence. Each infants electroencephalography scores were also measured with help from six electrodes during each visit.

Diving Further Into The Tests

Perez-Edgar and colleagues placed boxes with two wells (well A and well B) across from the infant. One well featured a toy and the other was covered with cloth and placed out of sight. Infants only passed the test if they could correct retrieve the toy twice from Well A and once from Well B once it was hidden.

What They Discovered

Researchers, using various statistical analysis methods, found there was not a lot of development at six months and a year of age. However, between seven and 11 months old babies passed more cognitive tests.

Researchers also noticed that EEG power increased steadily over the same period, suggesting that development on the surface does happen in bursts but is focused more “below the surface.”

That means when children suddenly start talking “overnight” they have actually been listening, thinking, and processing words for a longer period of time.

Limitations of the Study

The small sample size and the fact that EEG scores were taken separately from the cognitive tests still leaves some questions open to interpretation.

Still, the new approach to studying development is unique and the studies researchers plan to expand on their study in the future.

“This multi-method approach is helpful because we can see both the infants’ behavior and also what’s going on in the brain,” study coauthor Leigha MacNeill, Penn State graduate student in psychology, says.

“It gives us a better sense of where this variability comes from and can help us see what’s happening in the brain when the infant isn’t getting better at the task versus when there’s rapid development.”

So maybe your baby is a genius or perhaps they are just waiting in the shadows until the moment they are finally ready to blow your friggin mind.