Emory Report

January 25, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 17

Unlocking cognitive, emotional development mysteries

They are the familiar events of childhood. An infant's first glance in a mirror. A baby's struggle with first words. A toddler's distress after a playground fall.

These typical events are being documented in detail to help Emory researchers understand children's cognitive and perceptual development more fully. Their research is helping answer fundamental questions:

When do infants begin to think? How does language develop? How do toddlers describe the events that have occurred in their lives?

At the Emory Child Study Center such questions have been the focus of research conducted by psychology department faculty and graduate students.

Philippe Rochat, who directs the Emory Infant Laboratory at the center, focuses on what infants understand about other people, about objects, about themselves. "How do they respond?" he asked. "How do they attend to particular events in their environment?"

On any given day at the center, a visitor might find a mother cooing to her baby as a graduate student carefully documents the details of that interaction. Rochat and other infancy researchers call it the "mother-infant dance." Rochat has found that as early as age 2 months, infants are able to synchronize their responses with those of their mothers or caretakers. "We look closely at expressions--smiling, grimacing, gazing, the way a baby moves if he's agitated--the nonverbal cues," he explained. "Everything is documented in very precise detail."

Imagine a baby lying cozily between two TV monitors. On one screen he sees a real-time video image of himself; the other shows the same image played with a slight delay. By studying this "preferential-looking technique" over the past four years, Rochat has learned that, by 3 months of age, infants have developed a sophisticated sense of their own bodies. "They know they are different from any object or any other person," he said.

The hundreds of parents who have participated in these studies, "love" them, said Rochat. "We have fun. Parents love to watch their babies being tested in our various experiments." Sessions last no longer than 30 minutes--and Rochat is always looking for parent/infant volunteers.

Early word learning and categorization in infants, toddlers and preschoolers is the focus of Assistant Professor Laura Namy's research at the center. Her primary focus is on infants' ability to acquire words, and how that ability relates to use of symbols: How do infants come to understand that words stand for things? Is language a special form of symbolic communication from the onset of development? How does the relation between words and non-verbal symbols such as gestures change during development?

"Psychologists used to believe that children were born with an entirely innate knowledge of how to communicate," said Namy. "Now we believe that many aspects of language are learned. We want to know how parental interactions can help facilitate language development. Everyday experience can have a significant influence on what children understand and how they communicate."

In a series of studies with 18-month-olds, conducted with at least 1,000 babies over the past five years, Namy has successfully taught the children to understand a variety of made-up names for objects, including words such as "blicket," as well as sounds such as a series of beeps or gestures portraying a dropping motion. "It's implausible on the surface, but the kids are not disconcerted by it," said Namy. "It shows that children have real flexibility in words and symbols they are able to consider. They have no initial bias or expectation about how we name things."

The Child Study Center also serves as administrative quarters for studies conducted by Professor Robyn Fivush. Her research focuses on children's memories of stressful and traumatic experiences.

Do children recall differing amounts or kinds of information about stressful and traumatic experiences than about more everyday or positive experiences? Do they recall stressful and traumatic experiences in more or less detail? Are their memories more or less coherent? And how does memory of a stressful or traumatic experience relate to a child's ability to understand and cope with these kinds of events?

"We are looking both at children who have a single stressful experience, such as a serious injury requiring often painful medical procedures, and children experiencing a natural disaster such as a hurricane, as well as children experiencing more chronic kinds of stress, such as children growing up in violent neighborhoods," said Fivush.

Fivush is interested in examining both how and what children recall about these kinds of experiences, whether they retain these memories over long periods of time and the ways in which mothers help kids cope with these kinds of events by talking about them. Almost all data are collected either in the children's homes or in hospital settings, but all the remaining work is conducted in the center--transcribing the interviews, coding and analyzing the data.

While children in Fivush's studies are primarily recruited from Grady Hospital, Rochat and Namy are very interested in identifying young volunteers for their studies (ages 0-12 months for Rochat; 12 months to 5 years for Namy).

Volunteers can call 404-727-2979 to reach Rochat or 404-727-6636 to reach Namy at the Child Study Center.

--Jeanie Davis

Return to Jan. 25, 1999, contents page