Museum of Science, Boston

An Infant Revolution

The research in this section describes the unique techniques used by scientists who study infants’ cognitive abilities, and the ways that you can be a scientist yourself, either in the museum or in your own home! Although Living Laboratory does not currently host infant studies at the Museum, we provide sample research toys and activities that parents and other caregivers can use to explore infant cognition for themselves.

If you are interested in learning more about the awesome power of babies' minds, Alison Gopnik (UC Berkley) has two great books out in paper back and for kindle: The Scientist in the Crib & The Philosophical Baby. Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek's book Einstein Never Used Flashcards also describes the science for regular people. In 2006, the New Yorker ran an excellent piece titled The Baby Lab: How Elizabeth Spelke Peers into the Infant Mind in which Dr. Spelke - a Living Laboratory collaborator - describes the current state of infant research from her own unique perspective.

Mobile Activities Two

What can babies see?

Optometrists, or "eye doctors", usually ask adults to read rows of letters in order to determine how well we can see, but how do they test an infant's vision?

Although babies can not tell us what they see, they can choose to look (or not look) at interesting patterns with lots of contrast, like stripes or checkerboards.

To determine how well babies can see, cognitive scientists show babies a plain gray image next to an image of a wide black and white stripe. Usually, babies will choose to look at the stripes. The fact that they show this preference means that babies can see the difference between the plain gray image and the black and white stripe. Once they've tried a very big stripe, the scientist can make the stripe narrower and narrower, each time placing it next to a plain gray image.

At some point, the stripe will be so narrow that, to a baby, it will just look like a grey blur. At this point, the baby will look equally long at both images, because s/he can't tell the difference between them. When this happens, the scientist knows exactly how sharp the baby's vision is.

For a newborn, only stripes bigger than 1/3 of an inch are preferred over plain grey. By three months, babies can see stripes bigger than 1/8th of an inch, and by six months, they're able to see 1/16th inch stripes. An adult can see a stripe that is only 1/80th of an inch across.

An infant's vision isn't quite as sharp as an adults until children are about 3 years of age.



Other Resources

The activities for the Mobile in the Infant Area were developed based on the Teller Acuity Cards, which were developed by Dr. Davida Teller at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This video of an infant vision test illustrates how eye doctors use these cards with children. During this test, if young children can see the stripes displayed, they will tend to look toward the stripes. When the stripes are very thin, children no longer look towards them. This is because, to children with developing vision, the stripes blend in with the gray background. The narrowest stripes that a child will look toward provides a measure of that child's visual acuity.

Learn about other research related to An Infant Revolution.

Try it at the Museum

Infant Vision: What do Babies See?

In the Discovery Center's Infant Area, the "What do Babies See?" exhibit shows what a person looks like to infants at various ages, from a newborn up to age 12 months.

What parts of the person can newborns still see? What parts can't they see?

How could you recognize a person, if you had such blurry vision? Could you tell when someone was smiling?

Try it at Home

Infant Vision Simulator on the Web

You can simulate what it is like for babies in vision tests like the ones described above. While reading a newspaper, try to blur your own vision by un-focusing your eyes. What happens to the lines of text on the page?

You can try an Infant Vision Simulator for yourself, and find out what your baby sees. This site allows you to upload your own photos and see what they look like to babies at different ages.