Dec. 10, 1998

Staring and squirming could be adaptive behavior that helps babies explore their world, Cornell researcher says

Staring and squirming by infants might not be as random or meaningless as they seem, says a Cornell University developmental psychologist. Rather, the link between the two could prevent infants from getting visually stuck, and allow them to "visually forage" the environment.

This suggestion stems from findings at Cornell that human -- and some animal -- newborns and fetuses seem to engage in recurring cycles of motor activity.

"Our studies suggest that these cycles may be an inherent characteristic of babies' nervous system development which allows them to process more information from the environment," says Steven Robertson, a professor of human development.

Applying techniques from physics, engineering and mathematics to infant behavior, Robertson has developed mathematical models that accurately simulate key properties of infant motor activity and visual attention.

For example, Robertson and a group of graduate and undergraduate students who work in his laboratory studying eye movements of one- and three-month-olds, have discovered an important pattern. As infants stare at objects, their motor activity begins to escalate about one second before they look away. When the motor activity peaks, the infants' visual attention disengages, and motor activity immediately begins to subside.

"We think this may be an adaptive behavior that helps an infant to unlock her attention so she can take in a broader sample of the visual environment," says Robertson.

This association between visual attention and movement, Robertson says, also shows the role of variability in behavior and development: "The fact that these cycles are irregular may be ensuring a diversity of behaviors that allows infants a greater adaptation to their environment. In other words, variation is a source of potential solutions to adaptive challenges."

Robertson runs an infant laboratory at Cornell where, for his current study, more than 115 babies have been placed on sensor pads that detect movement. While the infants look at brightly colored stuffed toys, computers track both their motor activity and eye movements. Each semester, about six undergraduate students help collect and analyze the data.

One former undergraduate student, James Reilly, human ecology '96, now a Fulbright scholar studying clinical psychology at the University of Virgina, worked with Robertson for his senior honors thesis. An article reporting his work, with Reilly as the first author, was recently published in Behavioral Neuroscience.

"Working in the lab has been an invaluable experience for me," says Andy Gurmankin, arts and sciences '99, from Merion Station, Pa., who is majoring at Cornell in biology and society. "Dr. Robertson has taught me how to work through a research project from start to completion and to become a much more critical thinker. I have learned to think with a healthy scientific skepticism."

Scott Weiss, a junior and a human development and pre-med major, says, "This experience gives me a chance to apply the material I study in my classes. Suddenly, information which has always been stuck inside of textbooks has come alive as I have the opportunity to participate first hand in the process of finding new information. Participating in this process gives me a chance to explore uncharted phenomena and seek novel information. That's an exciting endeavor in and of itself. To know that I am not only a student of human development but also a contributor makes the learning process that much more interesting."

Other undergraduates currently working in Robertson's lab include Jodi Pike, Heather Bergida, Jenny Hwang and Evan Waldheter.

The research is supported by the National Institutes of Health.