Baby Geniuses: How Surprises Help Infants Learn

A new study explores how 11-month-olds expand their knowledge by playing with unpredictable objects.

When babies encounter a new object, their method of making its acquaintance tends to involve banging it against the nearest hard surface or shoving as much of it in their mouths as possible. While this is slightly less adorable when the object in question is, say, a brand-new iPhone, adults can take solace in the fact that it might mean the kid is learning something new.

According to a study published Thursday in Science, babies learn by being surprised by the objects around them.

For this totally cute research endeavor, scientists showed a group of 11-month-olds a series of objects behaving in surprising and predictable ways. For example, the researchers would roll a ball down a ramp and show it being stopped by a wall. Then they would roll the same ball down a similar ramp, but this time they'd make it seem like it had passed through the barrier. They also made an amazing video of the babies watching this happen:


After watching the "surprising" demonstration, the babies wanted to experiment with the ball: They would drop it on the floor or bang it on a table, as if to say, "what's up with this thing?" They showed less interest, meanwhile, in the "predictable" ball, or even in a new toy that had not done anything surprising.

"Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning,” Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the study, said in a statement. “When babies are surprised, they learn much better, as though they are taking the occasion to try to figure something out about their world.”

Then, they develop their own secret language and hatch a plot to foil a group of mad scientists. All in due time.