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Study: Babies Learn Best When They're Surprised

By Chelsea Karnash

BALTIMORE, MD (CBS) – Babies learn best when there's an element of surprise.

That's the takeaway from a new Johns Hopkins study.

The research, which consisted of four experiments with pre-verbal 11-month-old infants, found that babies have an innate knowledge about the world and when something doesn't act or react as it should, a baby will focus more on that object and ultimately learn more as well.

"Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning," explained Lisa Feigenson, who worked on the study and is a professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

For instance, researchers had one group of infants watch a ball that rolled down a ramp and was stopped by a wall, and another group watch a ball that rolled down a ramp and appeared to pass through the wall "as if by magic."

The babies who had watched the first predictable situation were less interested in playing with the toy, but those who had seen the second scenario "chose to explore the ball that had defied their expectations."

And the babies weren't interested in simply playing with the unpredictable ball; they also wanted to learn about it and understand it. For example, the babies who had seen the ball appear to go through the wall banged it on the table – evidence they were testing out hypotheses in their own way.

"The infants' behaviors are not merely reflexive responses to the novelty of surprising outcomes but instead reflect deeper attempts to learn about aspects of the world that failed to accord with expectations," said Aimee Stahl, the study's lead author and a PhD student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Hopkins.

The full results of the study were published Friday in the journal Science.

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