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

More

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

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

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In