Learning to see events

ScienceDaily has a report (here) on infants learning how to divide up continuous movement into discrete events. The research is published in Psychological Science: Roseberry S, Richie R, Hirsh-Pasek K, Shipley T and Gilinkoff R, Watching the world in motion, babies take a first step toward language (2011).

Do babies, before they have language, divide motion into the sort of events that we have words for, like sit down, jump, walk? This is the question of how we learn to divide reality ‘at the joints’.

Infants use “statistical learning” — they compute the likelihood that one event follows another and use that information to predict future events, says Sarah Roseberry. Based on these probabilities, infants find boundaries between events, a critical step for learning words.

The babies were shown videos of a routine of hand/arm movements repeated. The same video was re-cut to change the action. The babies preferred to look at the original rather than the re-cut video.

Other research has shown that babies use statistics to find the boundaries between syllables in the language they hear, and that they track probabilities in series of static pictures — say, a triangle, a diamond, and a square. But this study is the first to observe statistical learning with “continuous, dynamic events,” say the authors.

Roseberry says the work adds to a growing understanding of the earliest building blocks of language. “Although these babies were between just 7 and 9 months of age, they were already dividing the world into events” using the “tool” of statistical learning. “It is these events that will be named with words,” she continues. “A few months later, when they can hook up words to the events they see, they will begin to use language.”

This fits with a particular way of modeling the consciousness to episodic memory chunking in adults. The model assumes that consciousness is continually predicting what comes next. If the prediction is wrong then the event is closed and remembered, working memory cleared, and a new event is started. Reality is being divided at the point of the unexpected – at the joint. Watching a person walking; the next predicted move is left foot forward; instead there is a stop of motion; end of walk event and start of new event; new event becomes a turn to right.

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