In SSS, a research playground

Stepping into room 210 of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall is a little like reentering childhood: Snapshots of babies smile down from the walls of a cozy corner office that is furnished with a bright rug and stuffed with toys.

Scarlett Adams, a 16-month-old blonde named after the heroine of Gone with the Wind, hesitates briefly at the threshold of the treasure-trove toy room before entering the Yale Infant Cognition Center. Her mother holds open the door and encourages her to toddle inside.

Researchers at the Yale Infant Cognition Center use children aged three to 20 months to study phenomena such as the reading of social cues.
Daniel Carvalho
Researchers at the Yale Infant Cognition Center use children aged three to 20 months to study phenomena such as the reading of social cues.

A minute later, Scarlett succumbs to the entreaties of two undergraduate research assistants who tempt her with stuffed animals. Scarlett, a seasoned veteran of the center — which studies phenomena such as the reading of social cues and the development of group loyalty — begins to play a tiny piano placed before her, tapping away amid the applause of everyone else in the room.

The Infant Cognition Center, which since 1990 has researched infant cognition and social development under the direction of psychology professor Karen Wynn, is currently running 12 studies with the help of young test subjects ranging from three to 20 months. Psychology studies — particularly those involving children — can be complex to design and carry out in part because of their use of human subjects, but, Wynn said, infant cognition is an important area of study because babies offer an “over-simplistic picture” of the human mind.

“They are a good source of information of the human mind before the additional layers of cognition and knowledge of structure are placed on top,” Wynn said.

Wynn originally opened the center in Tuscon as a faculty member at the University of Arizona and then brought the center to the Elm City when she joined Yale’s Psychology Department in 1999. At the moment, she is overseeing a study on the kinds of smiles children put on to acknowledge authority figures.

And while young children are a relatively rare sight on campus, the center is a baby hot spot. Lab manager Kiley Hamlin GRD ’11 said seven babies on average come into the lab each day.

Wynn said although the use of human test subjects often provokes controversy in the scientific world, her studies are low-risk and depend on the test subject’s consent.

“Babies are the world’s best population for not doing what they don’t want to do,” she quipped. “They don’t give informed consent.”

Wynn said the two graduate students who work at the center — Hamlin and Neha Mahajan GRD ’12 — pursue their own studies relatively independently.

“I do give some oversight on the project,” Wynn said. “But it is my philosophy to let my students have as much free reign in developing their ideas as possible.”

Hamlin said the research she conducts at the center focuses primarily on how infants react to the behavior of others in their immediate environment. In one of her first studies, she discovered that infants presented with “nice” and “mean” puppets responded positively to the former and seemed to dislike the latter. In her current study, Hamlin presents infants with “nice” and “mean” puppy puppets that are shown to like or dislike different objects in an attempt to determine whether infants base their decisions on social cues. So far, Hamlin said, she has found that infants tend to select the object preferred by the “nice” puppy, which she hopes to use to prove that babies can respond to verbal and facial signals.

Mahajan said she hopes to expand on previous studies showing that children assigned to arbitrary, temporary groups will exhibit a preference for that group. Her current study involves offering infants a choice among different foods and toys.

“We create groups in many different ways and give the babies a choice between a couple different kinds of food,” she said. “Then I show them a puppet with the same preference and a different preference and see which [puppet] they choose.”

And, for all the insights infants and children provide into development and cognition, there is another perk to working in the center. Sarah Landers ’11 said being able to see and assist with research methods and processes has been an integral part of her experience as an assistant. But, when pressed, she admitted she had other reasons for her continued work at the lab.

“Seeing the babies come in is one of the best parts of the job,” Landers said.

Research assistant Zoe Liberman ’11, who has worked at the lab since this past spring, said all the research assistants work 10 hours a week — eight-and -a-half helping with the puppet shows and other studies or scheduling appointments for study participants, and one hour and a half at a staff-wide lab meeting where the researchers read and critique a different academic paper each week.

For the test subjects, the lab offers not so much the possibility of a discovery but rather the simple chance to play.

As she watched her daughter construct a pyramid of brightly colored rubber rings, Scarlett’s mother Lauren Adams reflected on her family’s experience with the lab. She said she appreciates the researchers’ effort to make her feel comfortable by allowing her to hold her daughter on her lap during studies and informing her that she could withdraw from the studies at any point if she felt uncomfortable.

Adams said the only negative effect of the study emerged after Scarlett participated in a study in which oatmeal was spilled and cleaned up with kitchen utensils.

“She did take a liking to kitchen utensils after the oatmeal study,” Adams confided. “That is when the banging of pots and pans started.”

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