What happens in babies' brains as they process and absorb new information?
Parents were invited to bring nine-month-olds for a cognitive experiment. Scientists showed babies short picture stories that had either expected or unexpected physical and social outcomes.
Hence, some infants saw a man with a pretzel. One of the "expected outcomes" was taking the pretzel to his mouth. The "unexpected outcome" was taking it to his ear, in order to contravene the infants' expectations.
Miriam Langeloh from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Moritz Köster from the Freie Universität Berlin, and Stefanie Höhl from the University of Vienna are conducting studies with nine-month-old babies.
By showing the information, scientists were able to understand how the data got processed in the babies' minds. Researchers understood that the theta rhythm was important in order to integrate new information for adult brains. Does the same theta rhythm also support the integration of new data while processing unexpected events among infant brains?
"In order to find out how infants integrate new information into their existing knowledge, we looked at the electroencephalogram (EEG) during the presentation of the images," explains Miriam Langeloh.
The paper, published in Psychological Science, said the team of researchers studied how the EEG measured the electrical signals that informed the information transfer between nerve cells. The signals were found fluctuating erratically at various frequencies related to diverse cognitive processes.
Miriam Langeloh further describes, "The babies were shown the picture stories very quickly, flickering at a 4 Hz (theta) or a 6 Hz (alpha) frequency. For example, in the theta condition, the events were presented at a flickering rate of four images per second. The brain areas that are responsible for seeing, the visual cortex, synchronized their activity to the speed of the presented images. We were able to show that the brains of the babies, like in adults, respond to the rhythmic presentation of the events."
Next, the scientists examined the manner in which the babies' brains responded to "expected and unexpected outcomes".
"Only the theta rhythm was sensitive to the unexpected compared to the expected actions. This shows us that the theta rhythm is responsible for the encoding of novel information in the infants' brains. Importantly, in the alpha rhythm, which we looked at for comparison, there was no difference between expected and unexpected outcomes," says Moritz Köster.
Hence, it is the theta rhythm that appears to be important. It seems to play a crucial role in the absorption of data into the information template that is existent in nine-month-old babies.
There are more plans by scientists to explore whether scientists can improve learning in babies and promote it through visual stimulus of the theta rhythm.