A new study “Very young infants learn abstract rules in the visual modality” says that babies as young as three or four months can learn abstract rules simply by watching others and observing all that’s around them. While previous research found that babies could only do so from speech and sounds, this research shows that they can learn abstract rules visually as well—the stimuli just must be presented in an appropriate way, said Brock Ferguson, former doctoral student at Northwestern University.

To reach these findings, 40 infants were shown patterned sequences of different dogs. For example, an infant learning an ABA pattern might observe a picture of a golden retriever (A), then a picture of a Chihuahua (B), and then another picture of a golden retriever (A). This infant would see several different ABA sequences of varying dogs. After a while, the researchers would then introduce two new sequences with new dog breeds the infants weren’t yet familiar with.

The elements in these new sequences were exactly the same each time—the only thing that changed was the pattern. So, for instance, the infant above who started out learning an ABA pattern would be shown that same ABA pattern (which may consist of a German Shepherd, lab, German Shepherd), followed by a new ABB pattern (German Shepherd, lab, lab). The researchers measured how long the babies looked at each sequence to analyze their attention.

The team found that the babies did notice a difference between varying patterns, even though the elements in the sequences were the same. This ultimately suggested that babies are capable of learning abstract rules visually. “The basic capacity of abstract rule learning has its origins in infancy. Babies are doing really powerful abstraction from just their observation of the world,” said Sandra Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and co-author of the study.

Prior experiments have tested infants’ visual systems, but this one stood apart in that the babies could see all three images on the screen at once, which led to these new findings. The researchers of this study say that the visual system is better at assessing and understanding patterns structured spatially (as seen here), while the auditory system does so by analyzing patterns from sequences that develop over time; think listening to a song or conversation.

Waxman puts these differences into simpler words: “Auditory learning is able to get patterns like ABB or ABA, just by hearing them in a sequence. The visual system needs to take a moment to see all the things together.” In sum, abstract rule learning is a natural (and necessary) ability us humans have. And until now, we didn’t know exactly when or how we developed this capacity, but this study shows that we begin to do so as young as three months, both visually and aurally.

Northwestern University (2018, February 21). Infants Are Able to Learn Abstract Rules Visually. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 21, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/babies-visual-abstract-rules-8553/

Ferguson, B., Franconeri, S. L., & Waxman, S. R. (2018, January 2). Very young infants learn abstract rules in the visual modality. PLOS ONE. Retrieved on February 27, 2018 from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0190185