Babies and Magic


We base our behavior on thousands of predictions about how reality will unfold around us as we interact with our physical and social environment. Some of these expectations are programmed in infancy and hard-wired into our neural systems with little or no exposure to external stimulation. Scientists refer to these expectations as “core knowledge”. Some examples of it are our understanding that solids will not go through walls, or that objects will fall if dropped.

Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson from Johns Hopkins University thought that violations of our expectations about the world might signal special opportunities for learning. Previous research had shown that babies stare for longer times when their expectations are violated; for instance, if a ball appears to pass through a wall rather than being stopped by the wall, or when an actor approaches someone mean rather than someone nice. It was not known however, whether the babies’ increased interest in entities that didn’t behave as they should had any cognitive utility.

If violations of expectations provide opportunities to learn, infants should preferentially learn new information about objects that violate expectations, seek information about those objects, and explore the objects in such a way as to test possible explanations for their bizarre behavior.

The researchers tested 110 eleven-month-old babies in a series of experiments. First, the babies watched as toy cars or balls went through walls or were stopped by them (among other physically possible and impossible scenarios). Then, the scientists showed the babies something new about the object they had just observed: for instance, that it squeaked when pushed. The babies learned to associate the sound with the object only if the object had previously violated their expectations.

Next, the babies watched events that were either congruent with, or in violation of, basic principles such as object solidity (the object appeared to pass through walls) and object support (the object appeared to hover unsupported in mid-air). Then, the infants had the opportunity to explore and play with the object they had just watched (the target object) and also with a new object (distractor object). The babies spent more time exploring the target object if it had previously violated core principles. When the object behaved consistently with their expectations, babies played equally with the target and distractor objects.

Even more fascinating, the babies interacted with target objects that had violated expectations in ways that critically depended on the type of violation observed. The babies who had seen the object go through a wall banged it repeatedly against the table, as if testing its consistency, whereas the babies that had seen the object float in the air dropped it over and over again. That is, they tailored their explorations to the type of violation witnessed. This dissociation indicates that the babies were not just reacting in random ways to the surprising scenarios, but were systematically testing their environments.

As adults, we don’t often experience radical violations of our expectations, particularly those that concern core principles of object behavior. One important exception is magic. A magic performance turns our reasonable expectations upside down: objects vanish, levitate and metamorphose. What if each of these violations signals a unique learning opportunity not only to the infant’s brain but to the adult’s brain as well? It may be that magic performances are so compelling because we are wired to engage our minds and actions in unexpected situations.

A baby’s playground is as large as the world, filled with everyday wonder and opportunity. As we age and learn, the amazement and playfulness shrinks — but we can always rely on magic for a visitor’s pass to the stunning playground of the mind.