A new study from Northwestern University is showing that infants are capable of learning abstract relations of the same and different items, and this occurs after only a few examples. We have already known that preschoolers can learn these abstract relations, but this is the first study that is showing babies also can tell the difference between two similar items.
This new study is suggesting that one of the key skills for human intelligence is present during very early human development, but language skills are not needed for learning the abstract relations. The lead author of the study was Alissa Ferry, who conducted the research on the infants at Northwestern University. Ferry is currently involved in post-doctoral research at the International School for Advanced Studies in Italy.
Ferry and the other researchers wanted to know whether the 7-month old infants could understand simple and abstract relations, which is whether they could know the differences and similarities of two items. The infants were shown to pairs of items, which were either different or the same, like two Elmo dolls or an Elmo doll and a toy camel. The researchers kept showing the pairs of items until the looking time of the infants declined. During the test phase, the infants were looking longer at the pairs that showed novel relations, even when the pairs of test objects were new. This means that the infants that had learned the same relation had looked longer at these test pairs that were showing different relations during the test. This finding suggests that the infants had already encoded the abstract relation and had detected when the relation had changed.
This study proves that even 7-month old infants can understand and learn abstract relations, with the infants even using the same patterns of learning as adults and older children. This means that relational learning benefits from seeing various examples of the relation and it is impeded when the attention is narrowed into the individual object as opposed to the objects as part of the relation. Susan Hespos, who is co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences stated that “We show that infants can form abstract relations before they learn the words that describe relations, meaning that relational learning in humans does not require language and is a fundamental human skill of its own.”
What was very interesting about this study was that the infants were able to form the abstract relations from just seeing 6 to 9 different examples, which appears to show that this is something ingrained in human development without much reinforcement of the ideology needed. The ability to understand abstract relations from such an early age is what really sets humans apart from other primates. There was a study recently that showed how baboons can also understand abstract relations, but it took over 15,000 trials for them to finally understand the concept, so there is evidence of how human intelligence evolves at a much quicker rate than that of other primates.