Study of the Day: Babies Are Smart, Can Grasp Basics of Physics Early

New research from Northwestern University shows that infants as young as two months understand how objects around them work.

main Aaron Amat shutterstock_93463648.jpg

PROBLEM: Babies are smart. They can be trained to concentrate, mimic the people they trust, and tell right from wrong. Are they also born with a basic understanding of physics?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Northwestern University psychology professor Susan J. Hespos reviewed the scientific literature on infants to determine if, like adults, they can predict the behavior of materials that they interact with. One of the surveyed studies, for example, checked if babies could distinguish between objects that can be held or thrown and substances like water that can only flow or be poured.

RESULTS: By five months of age, infants expect non-cohesive substances like water and sand to pour. Even more impressive, by two months -- the earliest age at which testing can be done -- they understand that unsupported objects will fall and that hidden objects do not cease to exist.

CONCLUSION: Babies may be born with knowledge of how things in their environment operate.

IMPLICATION: Parents don't start from scratch when they teach their infant how to navigate the physical world. As co-author Kristy vanMarle puts it: "Natural interaction with the parent and objects in the world gives the child all the input that evolution has prepared the child to seek, accept and use to develop intuitive physics."

SOURCE: The full study, "Physics for Infants: Characterizing the Origins of Knowledge About Objects, Substances, and Number" (PDF), is published in the journal Cognitive Science.

Image: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Health

Just In