Transforming what we know about how babies learn

Dr Victoria Leong

Dr Victoria Leong

Dr Sam Wass

Dr Sam Wass

In the latest in our series of biosocial blogs, Dr Victoria Leong, an ESRC Transformative Research Grant holder, and Dr Sam Wass, an ESRC Future Research Leader, talk about their research, which takes a new perspective on understanding how babies learn from their parents.

William James, the founding father of psychology, once declared that “Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalisation, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Since then, the vast majority of researchers have followed his approach of assuming that attention (or concentration, in layman’s terms) is a property of individual minds, to be studied in isolation. Concentration, they assume, is something that belongs purely to ‘me’. The external world buffets us with a constant stream of information, and the job of ‘I’, the entity who is perceiving, is to filter this stream, to parse it down into a more manageable amount of information. And, following on from this, most researchers would argue that the better an individual is at controlling this process – the more control they have, in other words, over what they pay attention to and what they ignore – the better they function in life.

Why babies outperform adults in learning a new language – it’s about patterns!

Babies, and young children generally, are terrible at concentrating – as many a parent of a young child will readily agree.

And yet, while children perform much worse than adults do at some forms of learning (such as abstract reasoning that if A>B and B>C then A>C, for example), they are absolutely amazing at other forms. Such as learning a new language, an area where babies and children far outperform adults.

Why is this? Well, to answer this question pablo (6)we have to understand what is involved in learning language, and understand how it is different to the types of learning involved in abstract reasoning.

The first step to learning a new language is breaking into its sound code.
To the ear, speech is a continuous colourful babble, and the brain must learn how to cut this sound stream up into smaller chunks that make up the basic units of meaning in language –  words, syllables and phonemes.

A prominent theory suggests that adult brains perform this task by aligning the temporal patterns of neural excitability in our brains to acoustic landmarks in the speech signal that carry the temporal imprint of these speech units – the technical term for which is ‘phase-locking’.

This process is a bit like when a dentist moulds putty over a row of teeth to take a dental impression, and what emerges is the outline of the ridges that demarcate individual teeth.


Recent research from our lab has shown that babies – who, remember, are terrible at concentrating – are in fact better at this process of aligning the temporal patterns of excitability in their brains to the temporal landmarks in speech than adults are.

Staying with the dental analogy, babies’ neural putty seems to be more malleable than adults’ neural putty – it gets into the corners better and takes a more accurate impression of the speech signal.

Keep attention!

We think this is interesting because of how it relates to attention.

Previous research with adults has assumed that this process of brain-speech phase-locking is an effortful process, that requires concentration. But we have shown that babies, who are terrible at concentrating, are even better at speech-brain phase-locking than their own mothers! baby on phone

So although concentrating is important, maybe learning isn’t all about exercising effortful control over what you pay attention to and what you ignore.

Maybe our findings tell us something about how the baby brain is better at letting information just ‘wash over them’ – to help us spot patterns in situations where we have no prior knowledge.

But, so far, this is all just about how learning works in isolation – looking at how one brain, on its own, learns something about the outside world. In fact, though, very little of our learning actually happens this way.

Almost all learning, particularly early learning in infancy and toddlerhood, happens in social contexts. But, because of the limitations of early neuroimaging technology, these social aspects of learning are relatively poorly understood.

Parents are likely to be the key


Recording dual electro-encephalography (EEG) with mother and baby

So currently, funded by a grant from the ESRC Transformative Research call, we are trying to take some of these ideas from brain-synchronisation and apply to help us understand social learning – studying the relatively new idea of brain-to-brain synchronisation.

Our working hypothesis is, by and large, similar to the hypothesis for the speech-brain research.
We are asking parents to teach a variety of different things to their babies, and looking at the differences between babies who learn well from their parents, and those who learn less well.

Our prediction is that the difference between babies who learn well from their parents, and those who learn less well, will be due to more than just their individual concentration abilities – ie the baby’s capacity to choose, voluntarily, what they pay attention to and what they ignore.
Rather, it will be to do with how synchronised the babies are with their parents.

Babies whose patterns of brain activity are better aligned and more ‘in sync’ with their parents will, we predict, learn better from them.

The next (baby) steps

We have an awful lot of work to do before we can even get close to finding out whether these hypotheses are correct or not. The techniques that we are using, of recording dual electro-encephalography (EEG) simultaneously from babies and their parents in naturalistic contexts, are very novel. And we have a lot of work to do to make sure that our methods are robust, before we can start to think about what the results show. But we are incredibly grateful to the ESRC for giving us this opportunity.

The 'Baby EEG Tardis' - a hand-made construction in our lab so that mums and babies can find it more exciting to go inside to have their brainwaves measured!

The ‘Baby EEG Tardis’ – a hand-made construction in our lab so that mums and babies can find it more exciting to go inside to have their brainwaves measured!

For more about our ideas and work in progress :

Wass, S, and Leong, V (2016). Developmental Psychology: How social context influences infants’ attention. Current Biology, 26, R355–R376.

Leong, V, de Barbaro, K, and Wass, S (2014). A pilot study on mother-infant neural synchrony during live social interactions. New York Academy of Sciences conference on ‘Shaping the Developing Brain: Prenatal through Early Childhood’. New York. 

Leong, V, and Goswami, U (2015). Acoustic-Emergent Phonology in the amplitude envelope of child-directed speech. PLoS ONE. 10(12):e0144411

Wass, SV, Porayska-Pomsta, K and Johnson, MH (2011). Training attentional control in infancy. Current Biology, 21 (18), 1543-1547.

2 thoughts on “Transforming what we know about how babies learn

  1. Pingback: Transforming what we know about how babies learn | Real Media - The News You Don't See

  2. Pingback: Your top 10 ESRC blogs from 2016 | ESRC blog

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