Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, has made exploring what and how infants learn her life’s work. “The job of the baby is to learn,” she tells The New York Times. (“Insights from the Youngest Minds”)

“’I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,’ she said, ‘and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.’ But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, ‘too stuffed full of facts’ to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.

“Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet…. Nancy Kanwishser, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: ‘Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition.’”

Spelke sees young scientists and mathematicians in infants. They unravel the physical properties of objects. They understand that the book is one object and the table on which it rests is another. They know two objects cannot occupy the same space. They differentiate between many and fewer objects. They are “born Euclideans” who “use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.”

Infants are also highly social beings. The Times reporter visited Spelke’s lab as the scientist prepared to record an 8-month-old girl watching cartoons.

“The 15-pound research subject made plain the scope of her social brain,” the Times reports. “She tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment. ‘Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?’ she said. ‘All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!’”

Lately, Spelke has been exploring language. She and her colleagues, for instance, have examined the relationship between language and race. A white U.S. baby will prefer a black English speaker to a white French speaker. And babies prefer people with their regional dialect. “A baby from Boston not only gazes longer at somebody speaking English than at somebody speaking French; the baby gazes longest at a person who sounds like Click and Clack of the radio show ‘Car Talk,’” the Times reports.

“Dr. Spelke has proposed that human language is the secret ingredient, the cognitive catalyst that allows our numeric, architectonic and social modules to join forces, swap ideas and take us to far horizons,” the Times reports. ‘What’s special about language is its productive combinatorial power,’ she said. ‘We can use it to combine anything with anything.’”