Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Scientific Thought Patterns begin in Infancy



Science 25 February 2011:  Vol. 331 no. 6020 pp. 1022-1023

Science Starts Early

Frank C. Keil

Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT


Evidence is mounting that young children are often quite adept at uncovering statistical and causal patterns and that many foundations of scientific thought are built impressively early in our lives. This growing understanding of how children acquire many of the thinking skills used in science has implications not only for education but also for understanding how all of us make scientific progress in the face of ignorance and incomplete knowledge.

For cognitive psychologists, scientists have long presented an intriguing puzzle. Whether a biologist or a geologist, scientists routinely, and with seeming ease, call upon a diverse set of cognitive skills to do their jobs. They detect correlations, often between seemingly unrelated phenomena. They infer causation from these correlations. If all goes well, they uncover the mechanisms that explain it all—and then share their knowledge and build upon it by acquiring knowledge from others.

Each of these abilities has early origins. Consider, for example, how children respond to the challenge of noticing correlations as they encounter them in the flow of experience. For instance, an infant learning language, upon hearing streams of syllables, not only has to notice how often certain syllables occur but also needs to infer higher-order patterns arising from those syllables. One study showed that 5-month-old infants can recognize new, unfamiliar correlations.

Other studies have shown that infants make causal interpretations by integrating information in ways that closely mirror adults. For instance, they will form causal interpretations based on information that is collected in brief time windows after the occurrence of the critical event (such as a possible collision); these post-event decision-making windows are similar to those measured in adults. Thus, it appears that certain sequences of events automatically elicit thoughts of causation at all ages.

Beyond infancy, children become able to examine more complex networks of correlations to infer causal patterns, including hidden ones, and they readily do this using sample sizes too small for traditional statistical tests of significance. They are particularly sensitive to separate causal links from those that are just correlational.

A child's understanding of the world is not driven simply by assembling correlations in a bottom-up manner. Instead, even very young children bring to most learning situations broad intuitions and expectations about plausible and implausible patterns. This kind of top-down analysis enables them to rule out or narrow an overwhelming range of possible correlations. For example, in thinking about biological phenomena such as disease or inheritance, children may make different inferences from patterns of covariation than they do for physical phenomena such as collisions or rotating gears. Another top-down expectation that children bring to living things, but not to artifacts, is the idea that something you can't see (e.g., “microstructural stuff ”) causes what you can see (“surface phenomena” such as feathers or fur). The idea that something you can't see causes what you can see is a guiding principle in much of formal science.

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