Researchers are calling it the "Goldilocks Effect": Turns out that babies' brains are wired to focus on "just right" experiences and information to help them learn.
In a fascinating new study from the University of Rochester, 7- and 8-month-olds quickly lost interest in video animations of balls, pacifiers and colorful boxes that were too ho-hum predictable or too complex. But they were riveted by those that held some surprises – like a ball appearing from behind a new set of boxes.
"The study suggests that babies are not only attracted by what is happening, but they are able to predict what happens next based on what they have already observed," said lead researcher Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences. "They are not passive sponges. They are active information seekers looking for the best information they can find."
Kidd used an eye-tracking device to measure the 72 babies' attention. The infants sat in a parent's lap, but the parent wore a visor and listened to music through headphones so that they wouldn't react to the videos on the screen and influence a baby's choices.
The take-home lessons for anyone who spends time with a baby? "Infants are learning all the time, as long as they have reasonably stimulating environments. They focus on what they can handle and filter out the rest," co-author Richard Aslin noted. "Parents don't need to buy fancy toys to help their children learn. They make the best use of their environment," Kidd says. "They are going to look around for what fits their attention level."
Just follow their cues. If something's too crazy and new, your baby may look away. But something with just a touch of novelty – stacking her blocks in a new way, for instance – may be fascinating. And sometimes, your kid will find plenty to admire and contemplate in something that seems old, familiar and even boring to you – like hearing Goldilocks and the Three Bears for the 1,000th time, "For a child, they are likely getting something new out of the story every time," Kidd says. "Because adults know so much, we often take for granted how many new things an infant needs to learn."