Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks

Apr 4, 2015

Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and
Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications

By Cory Turner

To survive, we humans need to be able to do a handful of things: breathe, of course. And drink and eat. Those are obvious.

We’re going to focus now on a less obvious — but no less vital — human function: learning. Because new research out today in the journal Science sheds light on the very building blocks of learning.

Imagine an 11-month-old sitting in a high chair opposite a small stage where you might expect, say, a puppet show. Except this is a lab at Johns Hopkins University. Instead of a puppeteer, a researcher is rolling a red and blue striped ball down a ramp, toward a little wall at the bottom.

Even babies seem to know the ball can’t go through that wall, though not necessarily because they learned it. It’s what some scientists call core knowledge — something, they say, we’re born with.

“Some pieces of knowledge are so fundamental in guiding regular, everyday interactions with the environment, navigating through space, reaching out and picking up an object, avoiding an oncoming object — those things are so fundamental to survival that they’re really selected for by evolution,” says Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Hopkins and one of the researchers behind this study.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

6 comments on “Why Babies Love (And Learn From) Magic Tricks

  • Even babies seem to know the ball can’t go through that wall, though not necessarily because they learned it. It’s what some scientists call core knowledge — something, they say, we’re born with.

    That may be so, but I don’t think this investigation demonstrated it. Surely the babies involved have had 9 months in the womb and 11 months out of the womb to learn that solid objects don’t pass through each other?

    As for Aimee Stahl’s ascription of motivation for the babies’ actions: And the babies who saw that car float across the stage? They just wanted to drop it — to see if it would float again. How can the investigators possibly know that?



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  • I discovered that one corollary to becoming a parent was an accute awareness that below a certain age children don’t possess a scintilla of traffic sense; watch a child at the kerb who’s being instructed as to how to cross the road, and you will almost certainly see them look at the ground the moment the adult instructer stops talking; in other words, the advice to look right, look left, and look right again is totally disregarded, because they have no concept of the danger posed by vehicles.

    I think it may be an evolutionary thing, in that the child has an inborn sense of the danger of heights, fire and other natural phenomona, but the motor vehicle is too recent a thing to register with them as dangerous.

    I’m probably wrong about that, but I’m certain about my observations of kerb side children below the age of about seven; alarm bells ring when ever I’m driving and see a nipper about to cross the road, even when they’re accompanied by an adult.

    Perhaps “road kill” is as a result of animals not sensing the danger posed by traffic?



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  • The article argues that violations of expected occurrences prompt young children into exploring those occurrences. That’s a young person’s approach, isn’t it; seeking out novelty?

    We ancient folk tend to have had more than enough novelty in life and are more interested in exploring what we already know in more depth. It would be interesting to know how we would react to observing similar but age-appropriate tricks and then being given the associated objects to interact with…



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  • …the advice to look right, look left, and look right again is
    totally disregarded, because they have no concept of the danger posed
    by vehicles.

    I think it has to do with ability to “see” consequence of their actions in their head. As a concept of “what if” is very abstract to comprehend for them. Even animals in wilderness will react only when danger occurs, they do not think ahead (only conscious animals do), they have no expectations because if they do they would not survive. For example if antelope is eating grass in steppe and she is constantly watching if lion would appear from somewhere she would die of malnutrition. Animals in wilderness react when danger occur and not before. Even when one antelope is caught by lion others watch like it is not their concern, they stand not far away and they are not running thinking “what if this happened to me”,… they will react only when they are directly attacked. Only conscious animals like humans have ability to produce mental images (like they are watching tv in head), and in the case of children it is a question how mature they are to be able to have this abstract concept of cause and effect. 🙂



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  • I think it may be an evolutionary thing, in that the child has an
    inborn sense of the danger of heights, fire and other natural
    phenomona…

    Also, I do not think that children have evolutional sense of danger,… I think that they learn from trial and error. For example I have heard of many children who has fallen from high buildings (balcony or windows). But I would like to read somewhere how much we humans own our instincts (if any), because I think we have them very little on none.



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