Babies Think, Learn Abstract Relations Before They Can Talk

Our analogical ability helps us classify the common relation of sameness between objects, events or ideas. For example, two pennies can be considered the same, because both are pennies and two elephants can be considered the same, as both are elephants. Although we know the vast differences between the two, our analogical ability or intelligence, which differentiates us from other apes, makes us notice the common relation of sameness that holds for both pairs.

Despite evidence has shown that preschoolers can learn abstract relations between the things, we have no evidence whether the babies can do the same previously, but a study at Northwestern University reveals that babies think before they can even speak; and are capable of learning the abstract relations of same and different after only a few examples.

“This suggests that a skill key to human intelligence is present very early in human development, and that language skills are not necessary for learning abstract relations,” said lead author Alissa Ferry, who conducted the research at Northwestern.

The researchers studied whether analogical processing ability is present in 7- and 9-month-old infants and tested whether they could comprehend the simplest and most basic abstract relation of sameness and difference between two things.

To begin with, they showed the infants pairs of items that were either the same – two Elmo dolls, or different – an Elmo doll and a toy camel – till they stop looking at them. Then they found that the infants looked longer at pairs showing the novel relation, even if test pairs were composed of new objects.

Infants who had learned the same relation looked longer at test pairs showing the different relation during test and vice versa. This indicates infants had encoded the abstract relation and detected when the relation changed.

“We found that infants are capable of learning these relations,” said Ferry, researcher at the International School for Advanced Studies in Italy.

“Additionally, infants exhibit the same patterns of learning as older children and adults — relational learning benefits from seeing multiple examples of the relation and is impeded when attention is drawn to the individual objects composing the relation.”

Susan Hespos, a co-author of the study, and associate professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences said, “We show that infants can form abstract relations before they learn the words that describe relations, meaning that relational learning in humans does not require language and is a fundamental human skill of its own.”

Dedre Gentner, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Weinberg, said that the infants in the study were able to form an abstract same or different relation after seeing only 6-9 examples.

She said relational learning is something that humans, even very young humans, are much better at than other primates. She came to that conclusion after her study on baboons that succeeded in matching same and different relations took over 15000 trials.

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