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Welcome to Spelkeland, or, to give it its proper name, the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, run by the cognitive psychologist Prof Elizabeth Spelke, which is dedicated to understanding what shapes the most powerful known learning machine – the infant mind. Great philosophers have mused for millennia about human consciousness and how it makes sense of its surroundings. Like any good scientist, Spelke has turned philosophical hot air into firm experimental data that suggests that we are born with a significant amount of ‘core knowledge’ hardwired into our brains.
Spelke is arguably the most influential figure in the relatively new field of baby brain research, and has been named by Time magazine as one of America’s best in a list of ‘brilliant researchers who are the envy of the world. . . .
The hub of Spelke’s empire occupies half of the 11th floor of William James Hall, a brutalist 1960s tower block named after the pioneering American psychologist. James himself once referred to the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of a newborn’s senses. Spelke’s studies have revealed that, in fact, there is order in the chaos: from the moment we first open our eyes, we possess the essential mental equipment to make sense of the confusion around us.
We are natural-born mathematicians – for example, six-month-olds can distinguish the quantities eight from 16, and 16 from 32. Babies will infer that a rolling ball will keep moving. They also know that when that ball rolls behind a screen it should pop out the other side. And although they can only babble, babies tell us that the germ of our instincts about age, gender and race are laid down in the cradle.
But how can you ask burbling babies what they are thinking? They are much trickier to handle than rats and students, the usual mainstays of psychological research. None the less, the Spelkeland experiments are fundamentally simple, and rely on the one thing that humans of any age can do: get bored. . . .
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[To watch a six-minute video interview of Elizabeth Spelke about her research, click here.]
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One area into which Spelke’s team would like to delve deeper is the origins of bigotry in human beings. In the case of skin colour, newborns respond to individuals of all races equally. By three months, however, a baby from a Caucasian household will prefer to gaze at a white face, and a black baby at an African American face. By the age of two or three, they are drawn to their own gender, too. ‘There are some very intriguing parallels between the patterns of social preference we find in infants and what seems to go on in adults,’ Spelke says. ‘But we don’t have them nailed. It is the work I will get most animated about, but the reason I am so animated is that we don’t have the answers yet.’ The effort to find how babies divide people into broad groups began only five years ago, ‘a blink of an eye’ in research terms.
Spelke’s studies found baby boys and girls have similar mathematical ability, an incidental finding that was at the forefront of her mind in January 2005 when the former Harvard president Larry Summers suggested that the relative lack of female engineers and scientists was down to innate gender differences. ‘When it comes to the basic modules we are born with, they are pretty much the same,’ says Spelke, who was in the thick of the verbal fisticuffs that followed (Summers was ‘wrong, point for point’). Summers resigned as controversy raged. Spelke does not deny that there are differences in the way men and women think but most of this, she believes, is learnt over time, and down to prejudice and the expectations of society.
Among some scientists there is a reluctance to ask questions about skin colour, so ingrained is the fear that conclusions will be exploited for political ends, or distorted by doublethink. Spelke is fearless. ‘The trouble is there, whether we do our research or not. Knowledge is liberating.’ The more we understand the foundations of how we think, ‘the more effectively we will be able to move in the directions we choose to go in. I am not so worried the research would be misused.’
Studies have already revealed why some old people mutter that all Chinese or Westerners look the same, depending on whether they are Western or Chinese. Six-month-olds are much better than us at discriminating faces of other races and can even tell individual monkeys apart. But that capacity evaporates at nine months, when they tune this skill to discriminate only faces of their own race.
Talee Ziv, another graduate student, is at Spelkeland to follow up some remarkable experiments she did at Tel Aviv University, Israel, with children from care homes. ‘The question was very simple,’ Ziv says. ‘We wanted to know whether children who are three months old have a certain preference for faces of certain races.’
Three groups of 12 babies took part: white Israeli children who had probably been exposed only to white faces; their peers in Ethiopia who probably had no exposure to white faces; and Ethiopian babies exposed to black and white faces because their families had emigrated to Israel. ‘We presented them with pictures of faces, side by side, one white and one African, and we observed where they preferred to look. The white children in Israel preferred white faces. Babies in Ethiopia preferred to look at Ethiopian faces. The third group showed no preference.’
More fascinating still is that Spelke’s lab has revealed a deep-seated prejudice, present in infants, that trumps racial bias: language. Dr Katherine Kinzler, though based in Harvard, spends much time running parallel studies in France. ‘Five-month-old babies will look longer at somebody who spoke to them in their language. Older infants want to accept a toy from someone who has spoken their language,’ Dr Kinzler says.
‘They like toys more that are associated with someone who has spoken their language. They prefer to eat foods offered to them by a native speaker compared to a speaker of a foreign language. And older children say that they want to be friends with someone who speaks in their native accent.’ Accents and vernacular, far more than race, seem to influence the people we like. ‘Children would rather be friends with someone who is from a different race and speaks with a native accent versus somebody who is their own race but speaks with a foreign accent.’
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Does Spelke think her research can help reduce prejudice? ‘That is a very difficult question and probably a premature one since we have a great deal more to learn.’ But her hope is that the better we understand our predispositions, the more chance society has to deal with hate and bigotry.
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