According to a new study carried out at the University of Iowa infants create knowledge by looking at and learning about their surroundings.
The researchers also explained that this learning is vital to forming memories.
"The link between looking and learning is much more intricate than what people have assumed," said John Spencer, a psychology professor at the UI.
The researchers created a mathematical model that mimics, in real time and through months of child development, how infants use looking to understand their environment. Such a model is important because it validates the importance of looking to learning and to forming memories.
It also can be adapted by child development specialists to help special-needs children and infants born prematurely to combine looking and learning more effectively.
The model examines the looking-learning behavior of infants as young as 6 weeks through one year of age, through 4,800 simulations at various points in development involving multiple stimuli and tasks.
As would be expected, most infants introduced to new objects tend to look at them to gather information about them; once they do, they are "biased" to look away from them in search of something new. In other words, an infant will linger on something that's being shown to it for the first time as it learns about it, and that the "total looking time" will decrease as the infant becomes more familiar with it.
But the researchers found that infants who don't spend a sufficient amount of time studying a new object-in effect, failing to learn about it and to catalog that knowledge into memory-don't catch on as well, which can affect their learning later on.
To examine why infants need to dwell on objects to learn about them, the researchers created two different models. One model learned in a "responsive" world: Every time the model looked away from a new object, the object was jiggled to get the model to look at it again. The other model learned in a "nonresponsive" world: when this model looked at a new object, objects elsewhere were jiggled to distract it.
The results showed that the responsive models "learned about new objects more robustly, more quickly, and are better learners in the end," said Sammy Perone, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the paper.
The model captures infant looking and learning as young as 6 weeks. Even at that age, the UI researchers were able to document that infants can familiarize themselves with new objects, and store them into memory well enough that when shown them again, they quickly recognized them.
The results underscore the notion that looking is a critical entry point into the cognitive processes in the brain that begin in children nearly from birth. And, "if that's the case, we can manipulate and change what the brain is doing" to aid infants born prematurely or who have special needs, Perone said.
The paper was published in the journal Cognitive Science.