Toddler brain experiments
July 25, 2016 4:16 PM   Subscribe

So I have a small child who is in the process of converting from a passive milk converter into some of actual human. Do you know of any sources I could look at which would enlighten me on how their brain develops and most importantly any fun experimenty things I could do to see how their perception is changing and to better understand how they are seeing the world.

I'm initially thinking of things like how understanding object permenance or theory ofmind develops.
I've watched their brain develop into an understanding of "these toes are part of me" and "those bigger toes are not part of me" and that small person in the mirror is me, and even there are holes on my face that let the world come in.
posted by Just this guy, y'know to Human Relations (24 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
Might be fun to plot the growth of the child's vocabulary.
posted by phrontist at 4:29 PM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy this book: Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid. I'm not sure how much of the content is for toddler aged kids, though.
posted by warble at 4:30 PM on July 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think the classic kid experiment is to put a cookie or candy in front of them and see how long they can wait to eat it. Here's the RadioLab bit about it. There's ages and development that mark when they can have the willpower to wait for the better reward. The results may show personality traits related to patience and learning.

There's also an episode about counting and numbers that discusses how toddlers learn to count. At one point they count only using numbers they know. For example "One, Two, Two, Two, Two" before counting past "two" or whatever.

And a bonus part of an episode about kids learning right from wrong.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:35 PM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

My older sister recently reminded me of her convincing me that her arm (just her arm) was dead when I was maybe 3-4. I'd pick it up, she'd let it flop. Apparently I cried. This might be a fun, if mean, experiment.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:42 PM on July 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed the book 'What's Going On In There', which is a hefty review of early brain development. Also includes lots of descriptions of experiments.
posted by bq at 5:16 PM on July 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik. "In a lively and accessible tour of the groundbreaking new psychological, neuroscientific, and philosophical developments, Gopnik offers new insight into how babies see the world, and in turn promotes a deeper appreciation for the role of parents in shaping the lives of their children."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Agree that "What's Going on in There" presents developmental neuroscience from 0-5 in a way that's easy to access for a lay audience with some basic science literacy. Her bibliography is an excellent way to extend your learning if there's something you're particularly interested in, and a number of the experiments are somewhat replicable in the home environment. She doesn't footnote in a traditional way (basically the citations are all at the end with page numbers). The author is a neuroscientist and spends most of her time on the ways babies receive and integrate information and she uses the five senses as an overall organizational theme.

I've only read portions of the Gopnik book, but from what I remember, it uses a lot of the same literature to take a similar but slightly different approach--as a psychologist and philosopher, she's more interested than Eliot is in how babies a sense of self and their consciousness of personhood, as well as how they develop complex emotions, empathy, etc.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:49 PM on July 25, 2016

Here's an article at The Atlantic with some pointers

My older sister recently reminded me of her convincing me that her arm (just her arm) was dead when I was maybe 3-4. I'd pick it up, she'd let it flop. Apparently I cried. This might be a fun, if mean, experiment.

My uncle convinced me I had cracked the miniature Liberty Bell we got from Disneyland when I was like 5. It sucked!
posted by rhizome at 5:51 PM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really loved Baby Meets World and The Scientist in the Crib. They both offer an accessible narrative of what's happening, and describe experiments that are pretty easy to replicate at home - tying a balloon to a foot of a very young infant (3 mos) to watch them discover cause and effect, testing when empathy forms by asking them to offer you broccoli (which you indicate you prefer) rather than goldfish crackers (which, obviously, they believe taste better), how to recognize and respond when they first start telling jokes (which are physical and not verbal), how to help develop a sense of pretend, learning when they recognize themselves in a reflection with a dab of lipstick on their nose, and more. I did all of these experiments on both my kids and it was really fun to see them develop the awareness of these different things.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:14 PM on July 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Brain Rules for Baby was by far the best book we read on this.
posted by david1230 at 6:42 PM on July 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

From an anonymous Mefite:
I am so excited about this question. (I'm a developmental psychologist working on making our studies available for parents to do at home.) Our lab made a few videos about a few tasks that show interesting effects pretty reliably, here (give-N to measure number-knower levels and some explicit theory of mind tasks). I think number-knower levels are what Crystalinne is referring to, although kids can actually recite the count list ("one, two, three, four, five, six, ...") well before they actually know what the words mean, which is even weirder :)

Here are some other fun things you could try:

- Cracker choice! 12-month-olds were shown graham crackers being placed in bins on opposite sides of the room. When they saw 1 vs. 2 crackers, or 1 vs. 3, or 2 vs. 3, they crawled towards the bin with more crackers (not at ceiling, but above chance). But when one bin had more than 3 crackers? All bets were off. The best explanation we have is that they can't represent more than three "distinct individuals." There's been a lot of follow-up work using the same paradigm. You'd have to play this game a bunch to get enough data to say anything about your own kid, but it'd be fun and delicious!

- Altruistic helping! Warneken & Tomasello's paradigms for toddlers (~18 months) would be pretty easy to do at home. You can also compare your baby to chimps! (They have a LOT of adorable tasks in this general vein if you get interested.)

- You can also download the program Panamath to measure your child's sense of approximate number--human infants (as well as nonhuman animals right down to guppies!) can distinguish between groups of objects on the basis of how many there are, without counting. The task might be a bit much for a younger toddler, but you'll probably be able to get it working by age 3. (My kid thinks it's a great computer game...)

If you want to get REALLY into it I have all sorts of ideas (operant sucking! bedtime habituation!) but, uh, perhaps the books cited above are a better starting point.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:02 PM on July 25, 2016 [39 favorites]

Alison Gopnik is on episode 188 of This American Life: Kid Logic.

This is a great question, any bets on what we're doing next weekend?
posted by jrobin276 at 7:09 PM on July 25, 2016

I also enjoyed The Scientist in the Crib.

And only tangentially related, but another experiment (well, bar trick) is the incredible balancing baby (youtube; demonstrates that babies have a cool reflex that allows parents - OK, dads - to balance them standing on one hand, even before they can stand).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:08 PM on July 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

The vocab thing is so much fun, I highly recommend it. I kept a spreadsheet that I still have a copy somewhere - one column I think for a week of new words, or a row, and it was sort of hilarious to track the new words and see what would surge forward and then ebb. One week would be all colours and then suddenly it was just nothing but toy names. It was really random and silly and looking at it now reminds me of what she was interested in at different points as a very small fry - what foods caught her attention, who she named first etc.

If baby is under a year, you still have time to see some of the primitive reflexes disappear, which is fascinating - one week they'll jerk automatically, the next week it's just gone.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:59 PM on July 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

T. Berry Brazelton MD, has a book, the first 24 months. It is a great breakdown that helps quell fears, and instill hope. This is just the basic, but knowing month to month normal development is helpful.
posted by Oyéah at 9:38 PM on July 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I thought this 60 Minutes segment on experiments that try to test whether babies are born good or are blank slates was really interesting.
posted by cali59 at 10:10 PM on July 25, 2016

I'm writing a thesis on the development of Theory of Mind in relation to language development. It is a case study and I am looking at age 4 months through to 2 years. Typically in that age range we see the development of precursors to Theory of Mind, such as:

- holding up objects to someone else's face to ensure they are paying attention to it
- pointing at things and the ability to follow pointing gestures
- the ability to follow someone else's gaze
- checking to see whether someone else is looking at the same object, so a back-and-forth between object and the other person's gaze

These are all behaviors that require a rudimentary understanding that other people see the world from their own point of view. You can easily elicit and/or observe these behaviors during play time.
posted by piranna at 12:55 AM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Why not sign up for University College London's London Babylab and take part in original research with neuroscientists!
posted by boudicca at 2:48 AM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if the Living Lab at the Museum of Science in Boston is still active (I mean, not that that would be convenient for you regardless) but they still have some cool stuff up on their website with "do it at home" suggestions.
posted by mskyle at 6:29 AM on July 26, 2016

Seconding everything in this thread! Looking up the Piaget tests on YouTube will also be fruitful - the explanations for the effects have evolved considerably, but they are very striking (They had to be in those days, they were the observations that could be made very quickly /simply on almost every kid!)

Do you live somewhere near a university? If you do, and they have developmental psychology labs, they will be totally thrilled to have you come bring your kid to participate in studies. 2 caveats- they can have limited hours, and some measures are less obvious 'amazing baby tricks', but they will give you a glimpse into new research and talk with you about what it *means* that your kid looked longer at the square than the circle. If this sounds interesting, know that you'd be making a really valuable contribution - finding participants is by far the biggest bottleneck for developmental psych. And as the kids get older the research games get even cuter and more fun - hunting inside boxes for hidden objects, talking to puppets, fiddling with weird toys. More and more kids' museums have also been starting partnerships with labs where you can participate right at the museum.

(For any Boston area families reading, the children's museum has a big on site research partnership with a bunch of local schools, though it's a grab bag what ages/studies are on deck on a given day)
posted by heyforfour at 7:35 AM on July 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fun with mirrors.

Before about 18 months of age, babies do not know the baby in the mirror is them. They tested this by putting a dab of make up on baby faces. Under age 18 months, babies touched the dab of makeup in the mirror. Over age 18 months, they touched the make up on their own face. (I mean they let baby see themselves, then added make up, then let them see themselves again.)

I also had fun with my niece when she discovered she could see around corners via a mirrored door when she was a tot. This had her enthralled like all afternoon.
posted by Michele in California at 9:51 AM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

How Infants Know Minds. This book is more about babies than toddlers, but if you're interested in more theoretical stuff, it is an incredibly engaging account that goes against predominant theory of mind stuff in order to argue that responsiveness is our deepest mode of engagement, and separation of me from you and individuation generally comes after that expressive, responsive engagement to the world. It's philosophically minded psychology but not too heavy despite not being pop psych, and I think would still be relevant to a parent of a toddler (or to anyone with an interest in mindedness, education, perception...).
posted by felix grundy at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Surprised to see nobody recommending teaching your baby sign language. We did this with our baby and many weeks before she could verbalize, she was telling us stuff with her hands. Whether we delayed her verbal development or got an early peek into her brain, who knows. But it was cute AF.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:24 PM on August 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

And only tangentially related, but another experiment (well, bar trick) is the incredible balancing baby [...]

posted by Joe in Australia at 5:32 PM on August 18, 2016

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