A Baby’s Posture is Key to Connecting Names & Memories to Objects

How do infants learn words for objects and how do they remember those words? Cognitive scientist, Linda Smith, of Indiana University, teamed up with a developmental psychologist and a roboticist to find the answers–they discovered that a baby’s posture and proximity to the object are critical in solving both these language acquisition problems. When a baby sees something and hears it named, their body position helps them connect these two features. Infants (and the robot) remembered the name-object even when the object was moved to a new location.

Those working in the fields of both artificial and biological intelligence seek to understand how cognitive and sensory-motor components should relate to each other. Consider how sensing and moving are an “in the moment” exercise, but they also must be coupled with an intelligence that is able to keep in the mind cognitive information of categories (what is it) and decisions (what can I do with it). This dynamic interplay of coupling and decoupling of action and perception is seen as an “embodied’ system of knowing and thinking.

This “mapping” of “multiple objects and unknown names” going on in a baby’s brain everyday is a monumental task. Obvious is the first step of turning toward the object–for a pre-crawling, pre-toddling newborn this most often requires the help of caregivers. Assistant professor Rebeca J. Woods of North Dakota State University found that when babies sit up, unaided or with assistance, the posture is fundamental to how they learn. By 6.5 months old most babies are able to sit unsupported, this allocates more of their time to discovering what’s new rather than work on staying upright. With babies any younger, helping them sit upright (even though tummy time is essential for physical development) proved beneficial in sparking their ability to tell objects apart from one another by using patterns. Woods concluded that: “Helping a baby sit up in a secure, well-supported manner during learning sessions may help them in a wide variety of learning situations, not just during object-feature learning,”

For the study conducted by Smith and colleagues, however, word-object mapping was conducted with 1—1 ½ year old infants. The researchers explain: “the spatial consistency of the direction of attention to the name, to the object, and across repeated encounters with the name and object increases the likelihood of mapping the name to the object and remembering that mapping.” Later tests found that the infant’s word-target mappings in new locations and postural stances were remembered. These findings, the researchers conclude, are critical to understanding the link between atypical motor development and cognitive developmental disorders, attention abnormalities, and poor language learning.


Morse AF, Benitez VL, Belpaeme T, Cangelosi A, Smith LB (2015) Posture Affects How Robots and Infants Map Words to Objects. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0116012. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116012.Online at: http://www.iub.edu/~cogdev/labwork/PLOS_RobotsandInfants.pdf

Woods, Rebecca J. and Wilcox, Teresa (2013) Posture Support Improves Object Individuation in Infants Developmental Psychology 2013 Aug; 49(8): 1413–1424. Published online 2012 Oct 8. doi:  10.1037/a0030344 Online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737278/






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