University researchers: Infants comprehend that animals have insides

By Bryan Boccelli

University researchers have found that infants are born with an understanding that animals have insides. Renee Baillargeon, professor of psychology, in collaboration with Pei Pei Setoh, graduate student in Psychology, published their research in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

In the experiments that they based their study on, Setoh said they found that babies, when they shook a moving, furry object, realized that the object was hollow. Upon this realization, the babies realized that the object wasn’t living.

The research was composed of four experiments and took five years to complete, Setoh said in an email. Through their research, Setoh said they were able to “demonstrate that 8-month-old infants expect novel objects they identify as animals to have insides.”

The researchers have contributed to understanding the developmental origins of the concept of animals. Setoh said young infants’ expectations about animals’ insides may serve as a foundation for the development of more advanced biological knowledge.

“It is also possible that biological reasoning is an early developing, core cognition, just like physical or psychological reasoning,” she said. “In other words, babies may be born with abstract expectations about animals.”

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Throughout their research they tested more than 200 babies, ranging in age from six months, 17 days to nine months, 14 days. The mean age was eight months, four days.

“Our research generally examines how infants make sense of the world around them,” Baillargeon said. “We study how infants reason and learn about events in four core domains: naive physics, naive biology, naive psychology and naive morality.”

This field of study is relatively new and students here at the University have yet to study it specifically.

“I have not heard such a finding in a class yet about pre-existing biological expectations from babies,” said Ben Dungan, senior in psychology. “The most common model for developmental cognitive reasoning from childhood are Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.”

During the first stage of development when newborns to 2-year-olds develop an understanding of sensation and action, Dungan said the baby could learn from itself to develop his or her understanding of animals.

“From day one of infancy you could point to the fact that babies themselves are animate and they could know due to feeling that they are not hollow,” Dungan said.

The researchers added that they enjoy working with infants as a part of their work here at the University.

“It’s always a pleasure to work with babies,” Setoh said. “I love the challenge of setting up shows and scenarios for them to watch, making it interesting enough that they will be engaged, and designing it such that we are confident that the experiment can answer the questions we’re asking.”

Baillargeon plans to continue this research, but in different ways.

First, researchers are asking whether infants not only expect animals to have insides but also understand that these insides are essential for animals to function.

“For example, do infants expect an ‘animal’ whose insides are removed to no longer move or talk?” Baillargeon asked.

Second, they are examining other biological properties, such as diet and communication.

“Here we are asking whether infants expect animals of the same kind, such as dogs, to have the same food preferences, say bones, and to communicate in the same way, by barking,” Baillargeon said.

Their research has helped develop this area in psychology more deeply.

“Our findings shed light on the nature and developmental origins of the human mind, they inform us about the cognitive development of typically developing infants and they can be helpful for devising diagnostic tools and interventions for atypically developing infants,” Baillargeon said.

Bryan can be reached at [email protected].