Monday, April 22, 2013

Babies Remember More Than You Think

There's nothing more fascinating to me than the mind of a baby. That's one reason I find the ability of babies to communicate with signs so interesting. Signs provide a window into a baby's mind. However, their skills don't stop with signing. Dr. Susan Goodwyn and I wrote the book Baby Minds so parents could appreciate how much more competent babies are than many parents suspect. The following story provides an excellent example.

“Who turned off the lights?” would seem to be the most natural question if you suddenly found yourself sitting in pitch-blackness. That apparently wasn’t what was running through two-and-a-half-year-old Miriam’s mind, however, when the lights went out during her visit to the psychology lab at the University of Massachusetts. Instead of questioning, crying, or even reaching toward Mom, Miriam confidently thrust her hands out in front of her s though she fully expected to encounter something interesting just beyond her fingertips.

Now why, when no object had been visible with the lights on, would she expect to find an object out there once everything was dark? It doesn’t seem to make sense—until you learn that this was Miriam’s second encounter with this particular dark room. Along with other children, Miriam had made an earlier visit to the lab to participate in a study of hearing ability conducted by Eve Perris, Nancy Myers, and Rachel Clifton. Miriam’s job during that earlier visit had been to reach out toward a toy that was making noise. When the lights were on, she had both her eyes and her ears to guide her. But when the lights were suddenly turned off, the job was left to her ears. Despite the dark, Miriam and her peers had no trouble finding the toy. Their ears were definitely up to the task.

But now let’s jump ahead again to Miriam’s current visit. Given these previous experiences with the dark room, it certainly makes sense that Miriam would anticipate finding an object out there in the dark. After all, you and I would probably remember a salient event like the one these children experienced. In fact, Miriam’s easy acceptance of the sudden darkness and her confident reaching behavior this time around hardly seem remarkable at all—until you realize that the event Miriam is remembering took place two full years earlier, when she was just six- and-a-half months old!

There’s an important lesson here for parents. Babies are affected by events that happen early in their lives. They may not be able to tell us yet about them, but the traces of the experiences—positive or negative—remain accessible to children for long periods of time and influence their reactions to things later on. So, let’s dedicate ourselves to making as many of those experiences positive as we can!

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to visit us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, PhD.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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