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October 10, 2010

New Studies Reveal Infants' World of Vision

Scientists have discovered a groundbreaking way of learning how infants use visual information to adapt to new surroundings.  Although eye-tracking technology has been around for years, it is now small enough to be used to examine how toddlers view their environment.  Recent studies using this technology show important implications for studying young children's perceptual, cognitive and social development.

Imagine seeing the world through an infant's eyes.  How do they navigate their new surroundings?  Researchers at New York University led by Karen Adolph may have discovered a way to find out.

"This project is about natural vision and how it develops, so there's tons of research about vision in sort of artificial situations but surprisingly after more than a hundred years of study, researchers know almost nothing about where people look and why in everyday life," said Adolph, a professor of psychology at NYU.


Finn, an 8.5-month-old toddler, was among the participants in this project. She was being coaxed to wear the eye-tracking headgear, which consists of two cameras - one that's looking out on the scene to get the baby's perspective, and another that's looking at the eye to track the movement of the pupil. A computer analyzed both camera views to determine exactly where Finn was looking.  The headgear weighs just 45.4 grams.

Jason Babcock is the founder of Positive Science, a New York company that has developed eye-tracking devices over the last decade.  He worked to make the eye-tracking hardware smaller and lighter so that it would be possible to use with infants.

"Now with the cameras and sensors being so small you can get images that are the size of your pinky. As you can see with cell phones and other things, we can combine technologies that we never thought we could do," said Babcock.

The team's method is the first to look at infants' vision when they are free to walk around and play however they want. John Franchak, a doctoral student at NYU and leader of the project, said researchers discovered something completely surprising.

"We expected going into the study that infants would be looking at their mothers constantly because that was common knowledge within [the field of] social cognition with infants."

But in a room full of toys scattered everywhere and obstacles to climb on and crawl on, the infants only looked toward their mothers about half the time.  And even if they did look at their mothers, they looked at their mothers' faces only about 15 percent of the time.   

"If infants aren't looking at their mothers as much as we thought then that changes the way we might think about how infants learn about the world from other people," said Franchak.

In contrast to rarely looking at their mothers' faces, toddlers almost always look directly at the object when reaching for it.

Another interesting finding was that while infants look directly at an obstacle before walking onto or over it, 75 percent of the time they don't always have to.  Toddlers are able to use information from their peripheral vision and still walk very well. While the scientists are still trying to develop methods to do more basic research, they say this technology may eventually be used in a wide range of applications. According to Franchak, down the line it could offer more research applications that could help infants with developmental disorders, medical research and applied research.   

So far, researchers have only scratched the surface in studying how young children navigate the world. They say future studies might guide doctors in helping children with autism or motor disabilities.