Winter 2018 Newsletter | PBS Labs

A Visit to the Infant Cognition Lab

The primary research goal of the Infant Cognition Lab is to discover the cognitive capabilities of infants early in development. The lab, directed by Erik Cheries, Ph.D., is part of the Developmental Science Center within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UMass Amherst.

Research in the lab examines the early foundations of conceptual thought. Studies performed are designed to be simple, fun shows which infants watch, allowing the scientists to examine their intuitions about objects, numbers, and the thoughts of other people. These studies use basic behavioral methods (such as looking, reaching, and crawling preferences) to investigate what infants understand about objects and people. The lab is particularly interested in how infants' early expectations about their physical and social world relate to rudimentary notions of identity, number, and socio-moral judgement. The researchers examine these questions in babies to help provide insight into how our own minds work.

A current study and dissertation project of Charisse Pickron M.S. examines how early experience with caregivers influences infants’ thinking about the categories of gender and race. Pickron explains, “Young infants can perceptually distinguish faces belonging to familiar genders and races, however, it is unclear when infants actually begin thinking differently about people from these groups. For example, do infants represent male and female or black and white individuals as reflecting different ‘kinds’ or categories of people? My first aim is to address this open question in a series of so-called “individuation” experiments with 12- and 20-month-old infants. My second aim is to increase the participation of families from underrepresented populations to better examine how early life experiences influence individuation development and to increase the ecological validity of our findings.”

When a family visits the lab to participate in a study, the infant is introduced to lab members and given a little time to play. This helps the infant adjust to new surroundings. 

Once the first task is ready to begin, the infant sits with their guardian in front of the stage.

The first task is a puppet show that introduces the infant to characters with different faces. At first, the infant is familiarized to the appearance of the puppets in a stationary position. In the proceeding steps, the infant sees the puppets moving out to the left and right of the blue screen one at a time.  

This puppet appears to the left of the screen. 

Finally, the puppeteer reveals what is behind the barrier. What is shown is either one or two puppets. If infants represent the puppets as different individuals than they should expect two to exist behind the barrier and be surprised and look longer when only one face is revealed.

A lab member in a separate room codes the amount of time infants spend looking at the different events. Also, the researcher uses a two-way radio to direct the puppeteer through the sequence of trials.

A view from the coder’s computer screen. 

Behind the stage, the puppeteer performs actions with the characters in specific sequences. They can see the infant subject in a monitor nearby.

The second task involves reaching and grasping. Pairs of small objects with faces are shown to the infant. They are invited to find the objects inside a special box with a back opening used only by the study’s facilitator. A video recording is also taken here.

The researchers want to investigate how infants think about different faces. Here one object in the pair is a control, showing only symbols, not facial features.

The lab members observe if the infant searches for each object in the pair and for how long. If infants think that two distinct types of faces went into the box they should keep reaching to find both faces. The researcher hides one of the faces so that the infant cannot find it. This allows the team to see whether or not the infant recognizes two distinct objects.

Other trials look at race and gender.

Thank you to everyone who has participated in our research! We invite you to explore more of the interesting work being done at the Infant Cognition Lab.