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Researchers are figuring out how infants learn. Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images
  • The way babies respond to magic toys and tricks may be linked to their problem-solving and learning skills later in life.
  • Researchers found that some babies stared at seemingly “magical” objects longer than regular toys and were comparatively more curious.
  • The same babies who showed greater interest in the “impossible” continued to be affixed by them when they got older.

If you showed your baby a ball that floated in midair or a toy that looked as if it passed through a wall, how do you think they would react?

Would they cry, have a look and quickly lose interest, stare at it intensely, or not even bat an eye?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that babies who intently gaze at such magical illusions for longer are more likely to be trying to figure it out. It also shows how curiosity can affect learning.

What’s more, these curious babies continued to be curious when they get older, becoming curious toddlers. And scientists think this may help predict their future cognitive abilities.

In this study, researchers decided to gauge the reaction of babies with something they didn’t expect to happen — such as with magic tricks and toys that behaved in surprising ways.

The researchers had 65 babies join the study at 11 months old and then again when they were 17 months old.

Some infants were shown normal toys, while others saw a toy that seemingly passed through a solid wall. Six months later, they were shown new toys, either a new normal one or one that appeared to float in the air as if there were no gravity.

Some babies stared at the “impossible” objects for much longer than others.

Moreover, the least interested babies remained so at 17 months, while those who were fascinated by the magical objects continued to show interest in them over the 6-month period they were observed.

Researchers then followed up on the study participants after they turned 3 years old. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers sent standardized questionnaires to the babies’ parents to measure their curiosity.

They received the same results: The babies who stared longer at events that defied their expectations at 11 and 17 months were also the ones the parents rated as being more curious.

Jasmín Pérez, PhD, lead author of the study and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, said this was the most intriguing result of the study.

“[The fact that this is] observable even before they learn to walk or speak is pretty surprising and exciting,” she said.

This is the first study to address curiosity in the preverbal mind, or in other words, in babies before they can talk. Up until now, curiosity was only studied in older children and adults.

“Researchers like us have been trying to understand how babies think for many years. And to do this, we often measure how long babies look at different kinds of events,” Pérez said.

The study shows how early the human brain is able to understand from experience to differentiate between expected and unexpected events.

“In general, we know that babies tend to look longer at some things than others. For example, they’ll stare and stare when an object appears to float in midair or magically appear out of nowhere,” she said.

“But individual babies differ from each other. Some stare really long at these kinds of puzzling events… others take a quick glance and lose interest. Why? We wanted to know whether these differences between babies were meaningful, or just reflected random fluctuations in babies’ moods,” she told Healthline.

Previous researchers had thought this was because babies were fussy, hungry, or simply distracted.

But Pérez and Lisa Feigenson, PhD, study co-author and co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory for Child Development, went to prove that babies were responding to the world differently.

Previous research has found that the element of surprise, such as magic tricks or illusions, has been shown to help babies learn.

A paper published in the journal Science in 2015, which Feigenson was also a co-author of, found that when babies come across a situation or an object that behaves in a way they don’t expect, they try harder to understand it, and therefore it may be the best way to teach them about the world.

This new study suggests that some babies are better at spotting these unusual or surprising events in the first place.

“What the data suggest is that some 3-year-olds have a leg up or seem particularly well positioned to learn a lot about the world,” Feigenson said.

Philip A. Fisher, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Translational NeuroScience, told Healthline that this study uncovered something new.

“What is new about the current finding is that it shows that there is considerable variation in infants’ abilities in this area and that these differences remain stable across time,” Fisher told Healthline.

But, Fisher said, it’s not entirely surprising to find such stable individual differences.

“Developmental science has shown that behavioral inhibition (shyness) can be observed in some children early in life, and that these traits remain stable through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood,” he said.

When kids are older and can talk, it’s easier to spot signs of a highly able learner: awareness, independence, a lively mind that can establish connections between unusual things.

Or perhaps a good listener, being verbally confident, having a strong memory, and vivid imagination can be clues to curiosity.

This study, meanwhile, theorizes that this natural curiosity in preverbal babies could be predictive of their future thinking, said Dr. Ruth Milanaik, director of the neonatal neurodevelopmental follow-up program at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.

“[The study found that] infants who exhibit strong responses [to novel nonpredictable situations] at a younger age will most likely continue to recognize these impossible situations at older ages,” she told Healthline.

However, according to Milanaik, it’s still too early to draw conclusions without further investigation.

“While this study does present novel findings, the presence or absence of the demonstration of interest in nonlogical situations should not serve to either include or exclude children from future gifted and talented programs,” she said.

Pointing out that intelligence is a complex trait influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, and there are multiple types of intelligence, she said, “These findings add to the literature on natural curiosity, but should not affect parents’ opinions of their children in any way.”

Fisher echoed the same thoughts.

“It’s also early to tell what the implications of this might be for early learning and parental awareness,” he said.

However, the idea that these capacities may represent stable traits could help us determine whether they’re associated with cognitive ability, mental health, and well-being over time, Fisher said.

Just as previous research on human personality suggests that parental support can help lessen the effects of extreme shyness in children, Fisher also believes this could be an opportunity for parents who have children with limited ability to identify reality-bending events to strengthen learning in this area.

The next step for this curious baby study will likely be to conduct a longitudinal follow-up to see whether the same children continue to be rated as most curious throughout school or score higher on tests.

Previous research has linked a high level of curiosity to potential greater academic achievement.

A 2018 study involving 6,200 kindergarten students and published in the journal Pediatric Research found that the children who were more successful in reading and math scored higher points in curiosity, both in direct assessments and questionnaires filled out by their parents.

“Individual differences can tell us a lot about how different people think about the same thing even in infancy. What we can try to learn from this work is how we might approach early learning in a way that benefits all types of learners, even in the very first years of life,” Pérez said.