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As a parent, you may have wondered how it happened when your child suddenly learned several new words from one day to another. According to a new study, infants prepare for tricky tasks for a long time before they actually tackle them.

The new study shows that most babies do in fact process the information gradually, they listen, contemplate and process the information long before actually uttering the newly learned words. This means that children work on learning new tasks over an extended period of time before actually perform them.

Researchers at used new statistical analysis methods to compare how we observe infants develop new skills, together with the unseen changes in electrical activity in the brain, by measuring electroencephalography (EEG) power

“Psychologists have been suggesting that while on the surface development looks like these quick bursts, underneath there may be very continuous, slowly developing mechanisms that one day look like they popped out of nowhere,”

“Like with kids learning to talk, it looks like they learn all these words overnight, but they’ve been listening and thinking and processing for a long time.”

– Koraly Perez-Edgar, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, USA, and one of the researchers behind the study, in a statement.

The research team from Pennsylvania State University, USA, followed 28 infants from six months of age to one year. The children were allowed to participate in cognitive tests and their brain activity was measured.

The team was then able to compare what actually happens in the brain with how the children express their abilities. They found that when babies may appear to learn new skills in irregular bursts, in actuality, their EEG power grows steadily behind the scenes.

“Infant behavior varies so much from baby to baby, so it’s helpful to understand what’s going on beneath the surface,”

“This multi-method approach is helpful because we can see both the infants’ behavior and also what’s going on in the brain. It gives us a better sense of where this variability comes from, and can help us see what’s happening in the brain when the infant isn’t getting better at the task versus when there’s rapid development.”

– Leigha MacNeill, PhD student in Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, USA, and one of the researchers behind the study.

The method used by the researchers opens up for future research opportunities by which we can get an even deeper understanding of what’s happening when children learn new things.

The study has been published in the scientific journal Child Development.


Leigha A. MacNeill, Nilam Ram, Martha Ann Bell, Nathan A. Fox, Koraly Pérez-Edgar Trajectories of Infants’ Biobehavioral Development: Timing and Rate of A-Not-B Performance Gains and EEG Maturation DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13022