Experiments to Do With Your Baby

Recreate real scientific scenarios. Stimulate two minds. The little ones are fascinating.

Weeks spent looking into the eyes of a loved one cause the brain to release nurturing hormones. In putting another before you, everything becomes more satisfying. Life can have meaning anew or at last.

When that person is a baby, though, it can also be boring. Though the parental bulbs pulsate, the higher cortices of the brain begin to whither and erode, understimulated in the absence of worldly adult conversation and pursuits. Baby does not enjoy museums. Baby does not get your jokes.

It's not his fault. His intellect is like that of a sentient grapefruit. But that doesn't mean your brain needs to go undernourished. You can feed on him as he feeds on you.

In a recently released book, Experimenting With Babies: 50 Amazing science projects you can perform on your kid, author Shaun Gallagher lights the way.

Henry is one-and-a-half, and he's your child. He is a good kid, but you don't always understand one another. What is Henry thinking? Why is he looking at me like that? Drink your milk, Henry.

(Colin Hayes / Experimenting With Babies)

Put two household objects on a table between Henry and your friend, Claire. Have Claire stare at the table directly in between the objects while she says "Look at the toma! There's the toma! Do you see the toma?"

Henry should be confused. What the hell is a toma? (Or since he is just a baby, simply, What is a toma?)

Measure how much time Henry spends staring not at the empty space, but at Claire. At Henry's age, it will be a lot. He understands ambiguity and social cues. He will follow her gaze, trying to figure out which object is a toma, and look back to Claire. She is his Google. You are his Google. Learn the look in his face; next time you see it, know that he needs more direction. Give it.

"I don’t have a formal background in science," Gallagher told me, "just a lifelong interest." He's a writer and former newspaper editor based in Wilmington, Delaware, where he lives with two sentient science projects of his own.

"When I was a kid I used to love those little Radio Shack 50-in-1 science project kits," Gallagher said. "You connect all the wires. I’ve always loved stuff like that, and now I get to do that, only on actual human subjects. That’s really how my longstanding interest led me to actually write the book."

All of the experiments in the book are based on academic research published in medical and psychology journals.

In another experiment, children began in one of two groups: One was called the quiet group and another was called the noise group. In the quiet group, the experimenter would repeat a nonsense word, over and over again. And then, after a period of time repeating this word, they would switch to a slightly different word.

"So it would be the difference between like 'bap' and 'dap,'" Gallagher explains. In the noise group, they would have nature sounds playing in the background while this was happening — the sort of "soothing" nature sounds you would get to help you fall asleep or something. Even in the case of these seemingly soothing sounds, it proved to be a distraction for the babies. And the babies in the noise group did not recognize the switch to the similar sounding word as well as the babies in the quiet group.

"So we can take away from this as parents," Gallagher said, "that babies really do need to have outside distractions reduced or eliminated in order to learn the best."

"Especially when it comes to language acquisition. So it’s kind of like an adult trying to pick up a new language, and if you have 20 conversations in the back it’s hard to concentrate on this new language you’re trying to acquire; same thing for babies. And parents can try to eliminate distractions, even seemingly soothing sounds can be distractions and we now know that can cause an issue."

I asked Gallagher if any of the 50 experiments particularly stand out in his memory as a favorite. He hesitated. "Well, here's one that's easy to re-create: Babies are shown different images of spiders, and one image all of the parts are in their proper order, in other images they’re scrambled up. It turns out that babies end up recognizing the basic structure of what a spider looks like, even in the first few months of life."

(Colin Hayes)

"The author of the study," he explained, "said we’re born with an innate knowledge of what a spider looks like, and it’s an evolutionary behavior that helps keep us out of danger."

More specifically, that experiment involved showing infants several images and tested their looking-times at each. They spent more time looking at the non-scrambled spiders. Those babies were only four and five months old.

"I emailed with the author of that study," Gallagher said, "and he is doing similar studies with other dangerous animals like snakes and rats to see if babies exhibit an innate fear response."

If you're not into testing fear responses, here's another good one.

Find a toy that, as Gallagher puts it, "you can activate by touching it with your forehead." That is, something that lights up or sings when touched. Then, with your hands in the air, do so, in front of Henry. Observe.

(Colin Hayes)

Several days later, do the same thing, but with your hands on the table instead of in the air. This is meant to show Henry that you could use your hand to activate the object, but you simply choose to use your head.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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