Surely one of the most amazing transformations in nature is the gradual transitioning of a helpless, demanding, and totally-dependent baby into a thoughtful and intelligent adult who can use language, produce art, and create society. The transition is slow, and reversions are known to occur, but for all our knowledge, the manner in which the brain organizes itself to great accomplishment is still mystery. However, much can be learned from studies of the type recently published by Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, and Rajesh Rao.

Understanding infant development is a crucial component of study in  attempts to gain understanding of human cognition. Seeing the development of skills by babies can uncover what prompts the development of these skills, and ultimately illuminate the transition to personhood. This study examined how babies tell the difference between animate and inanimate objects. We take it for granted that certain objects are animate and inanimate. There are various cues that we rely upon, but normally this is not a conscious decision making process; somewhere in our early development we came up with a “recipe” for distinguishing animate from inanimate objects. Researchers are interested in just what that recipe is.

We have known for a while that movement is an important factor in distinguishing the animate from the inanimate. Living things move in a “biological” way, for example animators often record the movement of human actors to make their animated creations seem more real. Of course, when it is dark, when we are sleepy, or under other circumstances, we can be fooled; leading to brief moments of fear when an inanimate object such as a leaf or a shadow make unexpected movements that might cause us to imagine we see a spider or some other dangerous interloper. This UW study shows that socialization is an important cue for babies to determine living from non-living.

In the experiment babies were allowed to watch a robot turn its gaze to a toy, and researchers looked to see if the 18 month old child would also turn its attention to whatever captivated the robot. Normally, children of this age are highly tuned for mimicry, and if you turn your attention to something, they will want to do the same. In general when the babies were presented with the choice of following the robot’s gaze, they couldn’t be bothered, unless something special happened first.

If the children first viewed the robot in a social setting, they became highly interested in observing the robot’s actions. In the socialization component of the experiment, the children observed the robot interacting with another researcher. That researcher would play games with the robot,  asking it to point to things like its “head” or its “tummy.” When children were able to see the robot interact with another human it seems they now viewed the robot as a social and animate personality. When the robot moved its head and blinked and beeped to get the children’s attention, they were much more likely to follow its gaze to a toy across the room.

Can you imagine vending machines, toys, and other inanimate objects socialized in the conditioning of children? I’m sure advertising agencies already have. The toys could get “excited” when you came down the aisle of the store and “disappointed” when you did not stop to buy them.