At the Cognitive Development Project, our goal is to understand how babies and children think, use language, and make sense of the world around them. In our playroom on campus, we create situations that are safe and fun for children, and then we watch carefully to see how they react. Sometimes we show infants a short (approximately 5-minute) video, or sometimes we give children new objects to play with. By studying the way that children behave in different situations, we learn more about how their minds work. We believe that our research will ultimately help parents and teachers understand the best ways to help children grow up healthy, happy, and smart! Read on to learn more about the studies!
One of our important research questions concerns when and how babies understand the movements of others. For instance, how do they come to learn which parts of a movement are crucial to achieving a goal (e.g., turning a key in a lock), which parts are accidental (e.g., dropping the key), and which parts are irrelevant (e.g., sneezing while lifting the key)?
One way we investigate this is to show infants short movies of animated figures which travel across the screen while avoiding obstacles. We then ask whether babies seem puzzled (and therefore look for a longer time) when the figure’s actions remain the same even when the obstacles are removed. Avoiding obstacles is necessary to get where we’re going, but following the same winding path when there are no obstacles is pointless. Babies seem to recognize this before they are a year old. We are looking at when this ability develops, and whether it is connected to when babies learn to crawl.
Another way we study this issue is through imitation. When an adult shows a baby how to use some new objects, which aspects of the adult’s demonstration determine which parts the baby will imitate? Are certain kinds of demonstrations more effective than others?
We are studying babies’ action understanding between 6 and 13 months. If you would like to participate in one of these studies, please see our information on participation.
One study right now investigates language learning, specifically whether young children (one- to three-years-old) learn new words better when they are presented several times in a row or distributed over time. Children at this age tend to show a “video deficit,” learning less well from video than they do from live interactions. We are particularly interested in whether spacing material over time helps ameliorate this video deficit.
Another language study examines how sensitive babies are to the “melodies” in speech. For instance, can they tell which sentences are meant to get their attention (“Hey, look!”) versus sentences which describe on-going action (“Now I’m stacking this block!”)? Can they tell the difference even if the speech is filtered so that the words aren’t clear and only the melody or tone of voice remains?
We are studying babies’ language understanding between 8 and 36 months. If you would like to participate in one of these studies, please see our information on participation.
Screen Media Studies
We are also interested in babies’ use of screen media (TV and videos). We want to learn more about what babies do and do not learn from TV, and we are also interested in parents’ experiences and opinions about TV for their babies. We are currently conducting a survey study for parents. (You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home!) We send a packet which takes about half an hour to fill out, and we include a stamped envelope to send it back to us. We follow this up with a very brief 1-page survey a few weeks later.
We are looking for parents of children from birth to 24 months. If you would like to participate in one of these studies, please see our information on participation.
Dr. Rebecca Brand
Dr. Brand is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Cognitive Development Project. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science from Vassar College and her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon. She has been at Villanova since 2002. Her interests include many aspects of infant cognitive development and learning, especially how babies learn from and about other people. Her work has been funded by Villanova Summer Research Funding as well as by the National Institutes of Health.