Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke pioneered infant gaze studies, which have taught us that infants understand objects, and they can sort-of count:
Show infants arrays of, say, 4 or 12 dots and they will match each number to an accompanying sound, looking longer at the 4 dots when they hear 4 sounds than when they hear 12 sounds, even if each of the 4 sounds is played comparatively longer. Babies also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart, and looking longer when the wrong number of dots appears.
Infants also have some sense of geometry:
Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures. Is the room square or rectangular? Did the nice cardigan lady put the Slinky in a corner whose left wall is long or short?
At the same time, the Spelke lab discovered, young children are quite bad at using landmarks or décor to find their way. Not until age 5 or 6 do they begin augmenting search strategies with cues like “She hid my toy in a corner whose left wall is red rather than white.”
“That was a deep surprise to me,” Dr. Spelke said. “My intuition was, a little kid would never make the mistake of ignoring information like the color of a wall.” Nowadays, she continued, “I don’t place much faith in my intuitions, except as a starting place for designing experiments.”
More recently, she and her colleagues have been studying infant social intelligence:
Katherine D. Kinzler, now of the University of Chicago, and Kristin Shutts, now at the University of Wisconsin, have found that infants just a few weeks old show a clear liking for people who use speech patterns the babies have already been exposed to, and that includes the regional accents, twangs, and R’s or lack thereof. A baby from Boston not only gazes longer at somebody speaking English than at somebody speaking French; the baby gazes longest at a person who sounds like Click and Clack of the radio show “Car Talk.”
In guiding early social leanings, accent trumps race. A white American baby would rather accept food from a black English-speaking adult than from a white Parisian, and a 5-year-old would rather befriend a child of another race who sounds like a local than one of the same race who has a foreign accent.
Other researchers in the Spelke lab are studying whether babies expect behavioral conformity among members of a group (hey, the blue character is supposed to be jumping like the rest of the blues, not sliding like the yellow characters); whether they expect other people to behave sensibly (if you’re going to reach for a toy, will you please do it efficiently rather than let your hand meander all over the place?); and how babies decide whether a novel object has “agency” (is this small, fuzzy blob active or inert?).
Naturally New York Times readers are expected to know Click and Clack from NPR’s weekend “Car Talk” show. (Click and Clack, by the way, are MIT grads, and their offices are in Harvard Square.)