In a new study, researchers have found that infants can shape their brains using their expectations about the world.
Researchers from Princeton University, the University of Rochester and the University of South Carolina conducted a series of experiments with infants aged 5 to 7 months, and found that portions of babies’ brains responsible for visual processing respond not just to the presence of visual stimuli, but also to the mere expectation of visual stimuli.
That type of sophisticated neural processing was once thought to happen only in adults and not infants, whose brains are still developing important neural connections.
The experiments showed that in situations of learning and situations of expectations, babies were in fact able to really quickly use their experience to shift the ways different areas of their brain respond to the environment, said Lauren Emberson, one of the researchers, who will join the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of psychology.
The findings offer insights that can shape future research in the area, said Janet Werker, a professor and Canada research chair in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies the roots of language acquisition.
Werker, who was not involved in the research added that the evidence that from very early in infancy, the cortex is able to set up expectations about incoming events, was the most exciting. This showed that infants not only learn about their external worlds, but are ready from very early in life to make predictions about the co-occurrence of events on the basis of very brief previous experience.
The research is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.