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Staring And Squirming Help Babies Explore

Staring And Squirming Could Be Adaptive Behavior That Helps Babies Explore Their World, Cornell Researcher Says

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Staring and squirming by infants might not be as random or meaningless as they seem, says a Cornell University developmental psychologist. Rather, the link between the two could prevent infants from getting visually stuck, and allow them to "visually forage" the environment.

This suggestion stems from findings at Cornell that human -- and some animal -- newborns and fetuses seem to engage in recurring cycles of motor activity.

"Our studies suggest that these cycles may be an inherent characteristic of babies' nervous system development which allows them to process more information from the environment," says Steven Robertson, a professor of human development.

Applying techniques from physics, engineering and mathematics to infant behavior, Robertson has developed mathematical models that accurately simulate key properties of infant motor activity and visual attention.

For example, Robertson and a group of graduate and undergraduate students who work in his laboratory studying eye movements of one- and three-month-olds, have discovered an important pattern. As infants stare at objects, their motor activity begins to escalate about one second before they look away. When the motor activity peaks, the infants' visual attention disengages, and motor activity immediately begins to subside.

"We think this may be an adaptive behavior that helps an infant to unlock her attention so she can take in a broader sample of the visual environment," says Robertson.

This association between visual attention and movement, Robertson says, also shows the role of variability in behavior and development: "The fact that these cycles are irregular may be ensuring a diversity of behaviors that allows infants a greater adaptation to their environment. In other words, variation is a source of potential solutions to adaptiv
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Contact: Susan S. Lang
SSL4@cornell.edu
607-255-3613
Cornell University News Service
11-Dec-1998


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