Babies may be able to perceive more than we think

Until Seth, I'd never trucked with infants. I thought I might break one.

And their moods swoop so hugely, you know?

But then Seth's parents started dropping hints that I was supposed to respond to their bundle of joy with emotions other than fear and trembling.

They nudged me along by calling me "Uncle Roger" around Seth and handing him over to me while they strapped down the car seat. And Seth, unlike all the other infants in my life, did not squall about this � as if I'd just arrived from Jupiter or something.

At least not too much.

As I watch Seth, I often wonder, "What are you seeing, my man? What's going on in that oddly shaped little head of yours?"

Recently I came across somebody who has spent a career on questions like that.

John Colombo's a Kansas University professor of psychology and associate dean of the Graduate School. He has seen huge swings of opinion about the abilities of babies in the quarter century that he has studied what goes on inside their noggins.

For example, scientists used to think that infants needed to be taught about such basics as the simple logic of arithmetic or even gravity. Then they started thinking that infants have an inborn sense of these things. But now that position is being challenged.

Lately, Colombo has been trying to determine whether infants might have an inborn sense of time and how accurate it is.

In an experiment, he studied 4-month-olds. He flashed a block of light on a screen for a set number of seconds, then turned it off for a set number. He did this eight times.

His question was whether the infants' heart rates would change when the light did NOT come on a ninth time. In effect, would they have learned to expect the light? And would their heart rate change more or less at the same moment when the light should have appeared but didn't?

Colombo found that, overall, infants in the study showed heart-rate changes within a half second of when the light should have come back on. Those babies who were most attentive to the screen showed "amazingly accurate" timing in responding to the missing light.

The discovery will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

Now why does it matter that some infants have inner timers you could use to soft-boil an egg by?

"Our experiment demonstrates that remarkable skills exist in very young infants," Colombo says, "skills that help them connect up events in their environment."

How is timing crucial to learning? A sense of timing helps us learn that thunder follows a lightning flash. It also helps us learn a language, as some sounds routinely follow others close together in time.

Colombo's discovery represents a turn back toward thinking that children might be more sophisticated than we suspect. Nevertheless, we all know that infants just can't do some things. I asked Colombo to name a couple of those.

One thing, he said, is that they can't stay on task. Secondly, it's darned hard to teach them to inhibit a behavior.

I asked Seth's dad what Colombo meant. He said, "Seth'll reach into a flower pot to grab a handful of dirt over and over again."

Then he smiles. "This means that parents have to learn to inhibit THEIR behaviors when they're around their kids."

You know, even with my late-breaking interest in babies, hearing stuff like that makes me glad my only responsibility to Seth is cooing and mugging and hugging him.

I don't really need to be Papa Roger.

Uncle Roger's good enough.

� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is


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