'Goldilocks Effect': Babies Learn When Things Aren't Too Complex, Too Simple

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Not too simple and not too complicated: Babies focus their attention on situations that are "just right," according to a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers from the University of Rochester coined this type of engagement the "Goldilocks effect." They proposed babies take in information that is not too predictable, but not too complicated by focusing on sights, sounds and movements.

In a study that included 72 7- and 8-month-old babies, researchers connected children to eye-tracking devices before they watched video animations of different items on a screen. A variety of objects were placed on the screen in different areas in several short trial periods. Researchers found that babies lost interest when the situation on the screen became boring -- meaning repetitive -- or too complicated.

When the babies looked away from the screen, the experiment ended for that item. Researchers noted that the babies quickly learned they were in control of the items they were watching and learned to keep their eyes on the screen if they wanted to watch more.

The study showed that "infants are active seekers of information rather than passive recipients, and they, therefore, adjust how they attend to visual information by avoiding overly simple and overly complex events in their world," said Richard Aslin, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center and co-author of the study. "They seek information that is of intermediate complexity, presumably because that is the best way to learn from the environment."

The study helps elucidate the high level of cognitive processing that is occurring inside the brains of infants, said Rahil Briggs, director of Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

"It reminds me of a concept called 'scaffolding,' or the need to, when teaching a child, meet them at their level and then stretch the material just beyond their current capacity, with support," Briggs said. "This helps children to feel enough mastery to stay engaged and not become bored, while striving for an attainable goal.

"It stands to reason that infants are processing information in a very similar way, and have a 'sweet spot,' within which information is new enough to be exciting, yet not so complicated as to overwhelm," Briggs added.

If information is beyond babies' ability to cognitively understand it, they will, as the authors indicate, most likely spend little time with it, said Paul Miller, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

The authors pointed out that the findings could demonstrate why children like to be read the same story over and over again. Each time, they are understanding something new and different from the story, whether they are themes, emotions, fears or concerns. Such new understandings could demonstrate the emotional, psychological or developmental challenges characteristic of that stage of development.

To the everyday parent, these findings may help parents judge what babies want by observing whether they continue to look at, gurgle, vocalize, move their arms and legs, reach for, grasp or lose attention in different objects and situations, Miller said.

"Using the baby's natural attention span allows parents to match their play to what their baby needs," Miller added, "versus what the parent might want to do.

It also would allow them to realize "that they are doing too much or too little," Miller said.

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