How does baby learn?

Researchers with the UW's I-LABS break new ground with their discoveries of how young minds develop.

My four-week-old son peered around the living room, intently taking in everything: the ceiling fan, the dog, his baby swing, the voices of his parents, the crinkly cloth book we held in front of his attentive eyes.

As he looked around, his eyes twinkled with curiosity. Meanwhile, his little brain was working like a computer, sensing, assessing, and deciphering the wonder of it all.

As a new mom, I worried that I was not doing enough to help him learn, that my husband and I should devise brain-building exercises for our little one. But the fact is, his brain was working just fine. During infancy, when our brains are the most flexible, babies learn rapidly and effortlessly. And they learn best from us, their loved ones.

That is just one of the many findings of the UW’s internationally renowned Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff, the institute’s co-founders, mesmerize people around the globe with their discoveries of the natural-born genius of babies. Their findings have revolutionized theories of human development, changed how people parent their children, and inspired early learning policy-making in Seattle and around the world.

From inside the brick building just north of the Montlake Cut, Kuhl and Meltzoff have done such groundbreaking work that the White House, the Vatican and Swedish royalty have invited them to discuss early learning and brain science. They’ve also shared their work with the Dalai Lama and other world leaders.

But there is no end to the knowledge they seek. Kuhl, who holds the Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning, and Meltzoff, holder of the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair, are charting new research paths, such as brain markers of baby learning, genetics that predispose some people to learning language faster, and the influences of race, gender and other cultural stereotypes on child development.

Drs. Kuhl and Meltzoff have inspired the Legislature with the promise and the potential of early learning, and the importance of strong and loving adult-child relationships early in life.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi

Their impact in their own backyard can be seen in legislation adopted by the Washington state Legislature. Rep. Ruth Kagi attributes the huge progress the state has made on early learning to the two leaders of I-LABS. “Drs. Kuhl and Meltzoff have inspired the Legislature with the promise and the potential of early learning, and the importance of strong and loving adult-child relationships early in life,” she says. “Washington has supported quality home visiting and early learning programs in large part because individual legislators now understand the importance of the first five years of life.”

In the fall of 2014, the brilliant Finnish physicist Samu Taulu became the head of the I-LABS MEG Brain Imaging facility, the only one in the world configured for babies. MEG—which stands for magnetoencephalography—captures the fastest, most precise measurements of any brain-imaging technology and is safe and suitable for young children.

One of the remarkable strengths of MEG is that, unlike other brain-imaging methods such as MRI, it doesn’t require people to be absolutely still. This makes it a breakthrough tool for working with awake and squirmy babies.

The brain scanner looks a bit like an enormous, vintage hair dryer you’d find at a salon, with a cap-like device covering the top of your head. Scientists call it a “stethoscope for the mind” because it is safe, non-invasive and simply records a baby’s brain waves without attaching anything to the child or putting them at risk.

Taulu, who holds a faculty position in the UW Department of Physics, is poised to accelerate the Institute’s brain discoveries, in part through a state-of-the-art “brain studio” set to open in late 2016.

But I-LABS is not solely about basic research. Its outreach and education team works with policymakers around the country so they can use the latest child-development research to shape early childhood education policies, such as the recent (and successful) “Best Starts for Kids” levy in King County.

The brain is a complicated, complex, amazing organ, and brain studies constitute one of the great frontiers in modern science. So here’s a look at some of the discoveries coming out of I-LABS.

‘Mother’s milk’ for the baby’s brain

New parents are advised to talk to their baby as a way to boost language growth. Reading books out loud and “narrating your day” are ways to do this. Now, I-LABS brain research has revealed why talking to babies is so important.

In one of Discover magazine’s top science findings of 2014, I-LABS scientists reported that months before babies utter their first words, their brains rehearse the motor actions that go into producing speech.

This means that while your baby may not be able to talk back to you just yet, her brain is making sense of your speech and building toward being ready to speak herself.

Using the I-LABS MEG facility, Kuhl and her co-authors measured brain responses to language sounds in nearly 60 7-, 11- and 12-month-old babies. Those brain recordings showed that in the 7-month-old babies, language sounds activated the motor-planning regions of the cerebellum and cortex, revealing that the babies were perceiving and processing sounds in both their native language (English) and non-native language (Spanish).

But at 11 to 12 months of age, the babies’ brains only had increased motor activity to the non-native speech sounds (in this case, Spanish). The I-LABS researchers, who published the discovery in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, interpreted this as showing that it takes more effort for the baby brain to predict and understand which motor movements produce non-native speech by that age.

When you slowly say, “Looook at your be-yoo-ti-ful eeeeyes!” we give baby a chance to follow along.

How can you use this finding to help your baby learn to talk? Try using the style of speech called “parentese,” in which you exaggerate and draw out the sounds of words. When you slowly say, “Looook at your be-yoo-ti-ful eeeeyes!” we give baby a chance to follow along. And as the MEG brain findings show, the baby brain can rehearse those speech mechanics to prepare for making those speech sounds for herself.

How vital is parentese? Kuhl often calls it “mother’s milk for the baby brain.”

In another recent study, Kuhl and colleagues found that the more parents spoke in parentese in one-on-one exchanges, the more their babies babbled. And then when the children were followed up a year later, when the kids were 2 years old, children in families who spoke the most parentese knew 433 words on average, compared with the 169 words in children from families who used the least parentese.

So it’s not just quantity, but the quality of language that baby hears that makes such a difference.

Gaze here, learn more language

Here’s a social behavior that I wish I knew when my son was an infant: gaze following. It’s where you make eye contact with a baby and then shift your gaze to something else. The baby will follow your gaze. Then you can name the new object you are looking at.

Meltzoff and colleagues have shown that this helps babies build language and other cognitive skills by shining a sort of “social spotlight” on what’s important.

Gaze following begins to emerge around nine months of age, I-LABS research shows, and leads to larger vocabularies in 2-year-olds. For preschoolers, those who showed more gaze following as infants had a greater ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view, or what researchers call “theory of mind.”

The next time you try out gaze following with your baby, you might wonder what’s going on in her baby brain. The answer: a lot.

Last summer, I-LABS researchers found that babies who do more gaze following while hearing language show stronger brain responses. This means that babies’ own social skills may have a role in how quickly they learn. This study, published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology, examined 9.5-month-old babies from English-speaking households who attended specially designed foreign-language tutoring sessions at I-LABS. Over a four-week period, the 17 infants interacted with a Spanish-speaking tutor during a dozen 25-minute sessions. Researchers measured gaze shifting at the beginning and end of the four-week period.

Then the researchers brought the babies back to measure how much Spanish they had learned. Wearing snug-fitting caps with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that detect tiny electrical activity produced by their brain, the babies listened to a series of English and Spanish sounds.

The results? The more the infant participated in gaze following during the tutoring sessions, the stronger the brain responses. That indicates that they had learned the new language sounds.

So when you’re sitting with a baby, realize he isn’t simply absorbing what’s around him—he’s actively learning. His social skills give him a boost in learning from the people around him. And you can stimulate his brain by encouraging gaze following.

Body maps pave the way for connecting

Some of the Institute’s latest discoveries lay the groundwork for an even more exciting path: understanding the role of touch in a baby’s life.

Think of how you tell a newborn baby you love him: you can say the words “I love you” but he can’t yet understand language. But our cuddles really show our babies that we love them and help them feel secure.

For babies and grown-ups alike, skin is the largest sense organ humans have. Understanding the role of touch in an infant’s life could be a powerful gateway to communication with infants before they learn to speak. Yet very little is known about how the baby brain processes touch.

Meltzoff and co-authors discovered last year that brains of 7-month-old infants light up in special ways when their hands and feet are gently touched. The brain measurements reveal a detailed body map in the cerebral cortex.

What does this have to do with how caregivers and babies bond?

Researchers believe that babies initially connect with people through their bodies. Showing that the baby’s body is coded in their brain provides crucial information about how they develop a primitive sense of “self.”

Meltzoff says that infant neural body maps provide a glimpse into the baby’s first recognition that other people are “like me.” That is, if my hand is the same as your hand, and my foot the same as your foot, maybe we have other similarities, too.

The infant body map sets the foundation for social-emotional development and connecting with others. And these studies may ultimately reveal underlying mechanisms when children have difficulty forming relationships with others, such as in autism spectrum disorders.

Early learning for everyone

Although I-LABS is a basic-research facility, a critical part of its mission is to ensure that the discoveries made here are applicable in the real world. That’s why—from King County to the White House and beyond—Kuhl and Meltzoff have distilled the science for policymakers who want to put the science of early learning into practice.

Realizing the growing need for clear information about the science of early learning, Kuhl and Meltzoff assembled an outreach and education team comprised of Ph.D.-level scientists who are skilled at distilling and making scientific discoveries relevant to a range of audiences.

In 2015, the outreach team led by Sarah Roseberry Lytle put on more than 100 talks, workshops, science exhibits, webinars and other events around the country, connecting to tens of thousands of people.

But that’s not all. The team developed a library of free online training tools covering child-development topics for parents and early educators, ranging from brain development to bilingualism to social-emotional learning.

Parents and politicians alike seek out I-LABS because the brain discoveries point to clear solutions on how to nurture children.

Now, with new multimillion dollar federal funding in place, I-LABS outreach efforts will assume a more prominent national role in early education. As a partner in the new National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning—funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that oversees Head Start—I-LABS will help develop resources for early childhood educators and those working with children in poverty.

The goal is to disseminate the latest science in child development to narrow the gap between scientific discovery and practical application and to help all children maximize their success and happiness. Early learning educators, parents, caregivers and policymakers are the most typical audiences that the outreach team works with. The team also forms partnerships with early childhood education organizations nationally and, coming soon, internationally, to help children.

Parents and politicians alike seek out I-LABS because the brain discoveries point to clear solutions on how to nurture children to give them the best possible start in life so they can reach their fullest potential.

It’s breathtakingly beautiful brain science, showing the firing and wiring of the infant brain, the process of laying down neural pathways in our earliest years that provide a foundation for interpersonal attachments and lifelong learning.

We all want the best for our children. The love we feel for them makes us vulnerable sometimes, when we imagine the challenges they’ll inevitably face in their lives.

But the knowledge developed at I-LABS will help our children become caring, confident, resilient and successful adults—what a gift to them. And a relief to us.