The Most Inquisitive Infants Grow into the Most Inquisitive Toddlers

A longitudinal study of infant curiosity discovered that months-old babies who were most captivated by magic tricks grew up to be the most curious toddlers, implying that a pre-verbal baby’s level of interest in surprising aspects of the world remains consistent over time and may predict their future cognitive ability.

A first-of-its-kind longitudinal study of infant curiosity discovered that months-old babies who were most captivated by magic tricks grew up to be the most curious toddlers, implying that a pre-verbal baby’s level of interest in surprising aspects of the world remains consistent over time and may predict their future cognitive ability.

“Something about a baby’s fascination with magic tricks predicts how curious they become as preschoolers,” said Lisa Feigenson, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory for Child Development. “The data suggest that some three-year-olds have a head start or appear to be uniquely positioned to learn a great deal about the world.”

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today. Curiosity has primarily been studied in much older children and adults, so little was known about it in the pre-verbal mind prior to this study.

A longitudinal study of infant curiosity found that months-old babies most captivated by magic tricks became the most curious toddlers, suggesting a pre-verbal baby’s level of interest in surprising aspects of the world remains constant over time and could predict their future cognitive ability.

The central question driving this research was sparked by Feigenson’s and lead author Johns Hopkins graduate student Jasmin Perez’s frustration with the traditional experimental method for studying infant cognition. Babies are shown regular objects as well as objects behaving in surprising, unexpected ways in these experiments. Many, but not all, babies tend to stare for a longer period of time at unexpected events. Some people will stare in amazement at a car that appears to float in midair or a ball that appears to pass through a solid wall. Other babies will catch a glimpse, yawn, and then they’ll be done.

Researchers assumed the variation was due to babies being babies, such as being fussy, hungry, or distracted. But Feigenson and Perez had a feeling something significant was going on. “We began to wonder if all of that individual variability is actually meaningful, and tells us that babies respond to the world differently from baby to baby,” Perez explained.

The most curious babies become the most curious toddlers

To find out, they conducted a study on 65 babies over the course of a year. Some babies were shown a toy that behaved normally at 11 months old, while others saw the toy appear to pass straight through a wall. Six months later, the babies, who were now a year and a half old, noticed either a new toy that behaved normally or appeared to float in mid-air.

“We discovered that babies who looked at magical objects for an extended period of time at 11 months were the same babies who looked at magical objects for an extended period of time at 17 months,” Perez explained. “Babies are affected in different ways by these magical events, and these effects appear to be stable over a six-month period during infancy.”

There was also little change in the babies who were the least interested over the six-month period. Was this difference in baby thinking predictive of future thinking? To find out, the researchers planned to bring the participants back to the lab when they turned three, but due to the pandemic, they instead sent standardized curiosity questionnaires to their parents.

They discovered that the babies who spent the most time looking at events that defied their expectations were the ones whose parents rated them as most curious in an information-seeking, problem-solving way – the type of curiosity that is most likely to help children learn about the world.

Feigenson’s lab previously discovered that these magical, unexpected events provide learning opportunities for babies. The new findings, which show that some children are better at noticing these unexpected events in the first place, suggest that some children are better positioned to learn, at least in this way that uses expectation violations as leverage to think more deeply about the world.

The team intends to follow up with the cohort to see how long the individual differences among the children last and how broad they become.

“One of the reasons these results are exciting is that they raise so many other important questions,” Feigenson said. “What does this mean for the children’s future? Are these students also rated as the most inquisitive in middle school? Are those kids going to outperform their peers on standardized tests of academic achievement or IQ? These findings scream for longer-term follow-up.”