Describe how looking time methods used in empirical studies have furthered our understanding of infants cognitive abilities

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As experimental techniques have improved so has our understanding of infant abilities. Describe how ‘looking time methods’ used in empirical studies have furthered our understanding of infants’ cognitive abilities.

It used to be a common assumption that an infant came into the world as a “tabulae rasae”, a blank slate as it were and that they were cognitively capable of very little, acting only on a set of innate reflexes (Locke, 1689). Locke’s beliefs were that an infant’s knowledge and cognitive processes derive from experience and exposure to the environment alone. Piaget was one of the first to challenge these ideas about infant cognition. Though children do gain perceptual knowledge of the world around them through a process of adaptation via constant interaction with environmental stimuli, the foundations behind their basic cognition is innate. Infants build on their own schematic knowledge and innate abilities to make sense of the world around them. Piaget’s theory suggests infants have a limited understanding of the physical world. They appear to lack the understanding of object permanence, have no concept of object perception and are incapable of recall from memory, (Piaget, 1938, 1959). All of these claims have been disputed by more recent research however and criticisms are high with Piaget’s methodology. Contrary to Piaget’s view it appears infants do perceive an objective world and are even aware of the basic rules governing object relations. There is much evidence to suggest infant capabilities go way beyond early assumptions and due to changes in methods used to study early infant cognition it is an unprecedented assumption today that an infant is born a blank slate. Looking time methods are one of the preferred methods used to research and observe early infant cognition. This essay shall be discussing three of these methods; preferential looking procedures, habituation techniques and violation of expectation methods, discussing whether or not findings can indicate early infant cognitive abilities and what conclusions can be drawn from such research.

It has been found premature babies as early as twenty-six weeks gestation are able to discriminate between light and dark and have been found to be capable of following a moving object with their gaze, (Bremner, 2012) but is what they are seeing merely blobs of light and moving blurs, or are they able to distinguish visual forms? Preferential looking procedures consist of an infant being presented with two stimuli simultaneously with their looking time being observed and recorded. It is assumed that if an infant looks at one stimulus longer than the other this is an indication of visual preference. Using this technique Fantz (1961) was able to establish infants have a preference for patterned stimuli over plain thus providing evidence to justify that infants can discriminate between the two stimuli. Results differed dependent on the age of the infant but this may be attributed to the biological factor that visual acuity does not reach full maturation until approximately six months of age. The findings suggest that some basic degree of form perception is an innate capability; however the fact that visual preference and discriminative ability is dependent on the age of the infant, suggests that environmental factors have an influence at a later stage of development.
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Fantz, (1961) was also interested to discover whether infants are capable of active selective perception which would suggest that they are capable of making sense of the visual forms they perceive. He used human facial configuration as the stimulus in his study on the basis that facial pattern is the most distinctive aspect of a person. It is also the most reliable way of distinguishing an individual from another object. Three flat objects were used similar in shape and size to that of a human face. On one was painted a stylized face in black on a pink ...

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