Infants as young as 10-months old can tell the difference between the kinds of paths naturally taken by a walking animal, compared to a moving car or piece of furniture, a new study has found.
The ability to categorise things as animate beings or inanimate objects is a fundamental cognitive ability that allows toddlers to better understand the world around them, researchers said.
The study looked at about 350 babies - who participated at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months - to find out when children clue in to the fact that animals and objects follow different motion paths.
Since the study subjects could not express much in words, the researchers used a technique called the "visual habituation paradigm," which measures how long one looks at a given object.
"You can understand something about what babies know based on how long they look at something," said Concordia University former doctoral student Rachel Baker.
"Babies will look at something new longer than they will look at something that is already familiar to them," said Baker.
Since computer animations of a bus or a table jumping over a wall held the attention of infants for longer than a bus or table bumping into a wall, it indicated the former was newer to them than the latter.
In contrast, infants' attention was held just as well by a cat jumping over a wall as by a cat rebounding after running into a wall, indicating that infants think that cats can both jump and rebound.
"Animals do bump into objects if I'm not paying attention to where I'm going, I've been known to bump into things. The bigger picture is that the motion of objects is more predictable than the motion of animals. This research shows that even 10-month-old babies have some understanding of this," said Baker.
The study was published in the journal Infant Behaviour & Development.