Research in Child Development Then and Now
Winter, Metta, Human Ecology
Observational research in the field of human development had its beginnings early in the history of the college when the nursery school program begin. The nursery school offered a living laboratory for faculty and students studying child behavior psychology, and guidance. Those pioneering efforts in research and education continue today through the work of faculty members like Professor Steven Robertson, who closely observes infants to learn more about cognitive development.
The Human Textbook
FOOD. CLOTHING. SHELTER. In the early 1900s, these three human essentials shaped the home economics curriculum at Cornell, where students could enroll in courses in food and nutrition, textiles and apparel, home management. and household art, among others. As home economics grew from a department to a school to a college, the curriculum grew to include more contemporary human needs, and courses on the family and human relationships were developed.
In 1925 the Department of Family Life was organized, and that same year the college received a grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial. The grant allowed the college to broaden its focus further, this time to include child development and guidance and parent education. With funding from the grant, the college established a nursery school and developed courses in child training and guidance. Initially, preschool children between the ages of two and one-half to four and one-half were enrolled.
Home economics students took child guidance as a required course, and both staff and students studied the children at the school and in their homes. They observed the children's daily routines and coordinated those observations with study in child hygiene, nutrition, psychology, and behavior. One graduate-level course had students observe, record, classify, and analyze nearly 1,000 single events in a child's daily life.
Using record sheets and summary sheets to document their observations, the staff and students developed guides to interpret the data collected and to educate parents about child behavior and guidance. Through their observations, the students learned about the factors that influence child behavior, how children develop, and how their development is influenced in the family context.
The nursery school program became a living laboratory for students and faculty, and the children in the program were the human textbook" for the courses taught:
What these children do, how they behave differently at home and at school, how they develop, what they eat and how much they sleep, why they select this toy or that and how long they play with it, what sort of clothes they wear, how much sunshine they get, what their parents do with them at home--all this and much more are the ever-changing pages for class discussion. (From the seventh annual report of the College of Home Economics, 1931)
The program continues today as the Early Childhood Center at Cornell, and the objectives have changed little--to teach students to discover through observation the factors that influence child development and behavior, to demonstrate the highest quality early childhood education and care, to offer parent education and support, and to provide an environment for research.
Let's face it, studying infants is a real pain in the neck," says Steven Robertson, referring to his research on infant cognitive development. "They're either crying or falling asleep or spitting up, so it's tough to design experiments that allow us to figure out what's going on inside their heads."
For this very reason, the trend over the last 25 years among cognitive scientists studying early infant development has been to separate the mind from the body. They've tried to be clever, Robertson says, about sidestepping the physicality of babies to get to the "pure mind."
From his point of view, the notion of the disembodied mind just doesn't wash. With nearly 20 years of continuous support from the National Institutes of Health, Robertson, a professor of human development, has taken the opposite approach. Since a baby's mind does exist in a wiggly, fussy body, he starts with the body first. How, he wants to know, might spontaneous motor activity common to infancy influence a baby's attention to and perception of the world?
In his studies of the relationship between attention and motor activity, obertson focuses on very short time scales-right down to a 60th of a second.
"Typically, if you sy you want to know the relationship between motor activity and attention, someone will say, 'Babies that are fidgety just don't pay attention to very much,"' Robertson explains. "That's based on a time scale on the order of minutes or more. Instead, we need to look at much shorter time scales."
Robertson starts with the assumption that babies are paying attention to what they're looking at, and in doing so, they are absorbing information from the world around them. He has designed a synchronized measuring system that records the movements of one- to three mont hold babies while they are gazing at objects. A highly sensitive video camera focused on the baby's face records precisely when their eyes move to, stay with, then move away from objects. At the same time, sensors lining the seat they're reclining in record body vements Light down to heartbeats.
Robertson wanted to know if a baby's disengagement of attention was preceded by any characteristic pattern of motor activity. Does the body movement facilitate or trigger disengagement, and if so, what might the functional consequences of that be? On the one hand, wriggling about could be seen to have adverse consequences, interrupting their attention. On the other hand, once attention is interrupted it can be refocused elsewhere in the environment. So fidgeting might be beneficial if it makes it easier for babies to sample different parts of their world.
When he analyzed the data, Robertson made a startling discovery. In the case of one-month-olds, about two and one-half to three seconds before the babies looked away, their body movements increased rapidly, and then only after a second burst of activity did they disengage. By the age of three months, however, these two phases had coalesced into a single burst of activity, a mere 600 milliseconds before the baby's attention shifted.
When Robertson looked at how babies behave just prior to becoming engaged by something, he found no age-related differences. What they all did is called the orienting response, and it is common across species. A dog and a cat and a baby all freeze when their attention is caught by something. The difference in motor activity, then, occurs in how they break away.
"We're encouraged that we're onto something here, that there are important connections between the bursts of motor activity and disengagement of attention in young infants," says Robertson.
One of the characteristics of a good attention system is that it can be interrupted, he points out. Early in infancy internal control of attention is not so great, and the consequence is that young infants seem to get stuck on things; they'll often look at things until they cry. This prompted Robertson to look at what else might help disengage attention.
To pursue this question, Robertson has investigated the use of mathematical models in addition to observing infants themselves. For the past couple of years he has been collaborating with John Guckenheimer, a professor of applied mathematics, to design computer models that simulate the relationship between a baby's movements and its cognitive activity.
Models have two major advantages. By design, a model is simple, incorporating only a few of the characteristics of the real-life object of study. This allows investigators to observe individual elements that might be at work. And, most important, models may suggest something about real behavior that investigators hadn't thought of.
This is precisely what happened, mostly because Robertson's first model was an abysmal failure. It failed because when it reached the boundary between "looking" and "not looking," the model jumped back and forth rapidly, showing a series of very short "looks" and "looks away," which is not characteristic of how babies really act.
Thinking about what might be awry, Robertson and Guckenheimer realized that the model lacked hysteresis, a property common to many mechanical and biological systems. The idea behind hysteresis is that the path a system follows as it changes from one state to another depends on where it has been. Take the control mechanism on the thermostat of a household furnace. To keep the room temperature constant, the furnace actually has two settings a few degrees apart rather than just one. If it had one, the furnace would be rapidly shutting off and on to reach the desired temperature, creating a chattering, just as in Robertson's model of babies' attention. Adding a spread, or "stickiness" as Robertson puts it, eliminates the chatter.
When he mathematically built hysteresis, or stickiness, into the model--making it work a little harder to "look away and refocus" again--it began to behave like real babies.
"This is the classic situation you hope to run into when you are modeling," Robertson says. "You hope to find some key property in the model that makes it work, something that you hadn't thought about in the real thing. In this case, it was that there must be something 'sticky' going on in the babies."
Robertson's next challenge is to design an experiment to detect what that stickiness might be. One possibility is that attention is disengaged early and it takes those three additional seconds to activate the behaviors that move the eyes. Which brings him right back to the critical importance of the body in understanding cognitive behavior.
"More and more, we're realizing we have to understand the embodiment of the things we are studying just as we have to understand the neurological substrate," Robertson says.
He allows that his work may seem abstract and removed from real applications. But such fundamental research on the nature and functioning of the body and the brain offers the best chance of someday finding, for example, effective treatments for developmental abnormalities like attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity in school-age children. For now, however, Robertson will continue to pay close attention to the body movements of infants, hoping to lay the groundwork for future discoveries about cognitive development.
Parents and educators who struggle with the poor school performance, not to speak of the general unhappiness, of children suffering from attention deficit disorders want research to bring more effective treatments. And they want those treatments now. Yet how are discoveries made that solve such clinical problems? Not always, as it turns out, in the way you'd think.
One would assume that researchers who set out to answer a particular question, say, how to quiet a child with ADD or repair a congenital heart defect, have the best shot at finding a useful answer. Not so, explains Steven Robertson, professor of human development. Rather, it's the scientists who pursue what piques their curiosity without concern for the practical application who make many of the critical groundbreaking discoveries.
To illustrate his point, Robertson cites a famous study published in the journal Science in the late 70s. The authors Julius Comroe and Robert Dripps took a scientific approach to assessing whether basic or applied research produces solutions to practical problems. They looked at the discoveries leading up to the top 10 clinical advances in cardiovascular and pulmonary medicine, as defined by experts in the field. Then Comroe and Dripps screened more than 4,000 scientific articles that had been published in those fields to find the key research responsible for the clinical advances. They found that more than 60 percent of the key work fell into the category of basic research. The scientists involved had pursued innovative and imaginative research with the goal of knowledge for knowledge's sake. Most never foresaw where their discoveries would lead in clinical medicine.
Take open heart surgery. Comroe and Dripps found that success in this high-risk procedure depended on 25 essential bodies of knowledge. An accurate preoperative diagnosis, for example, required angiocardiogrophy, which required earlier discoveries in cardiac catheterization, which depended on the still earlier discovery of x-rays. An effective heartlung machine, which keeps the blood oxygenated and moving through the body during surgery, requires basic knowledge of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
All in all, Comroe and Dripps found that basic research, driven by the investigator's curiosity to know how living organisms function, "pays off in terms of key discoveries almost twice as handsomely as other types of research and development."
The National Institutes of Health know this and for that reason have provided consistent support for researchers like Robertson, whose work is in the discovery phase. As Arthur Kornberg wrote several years ago in an editorial in Science,
In the history of triumphs in biomedical science such wars and crusades [against particular diseases or problems] invariably failed because they lacked the necessary weapons--the essential knowledge of basic life processes. Instead, some of the major advances--x-rays, penicillin, polio vaccine, and genetic engineering--have come from the efforts of individual scientists to understand Nature, unrelated to any practical objective. Basic research has been the province of the individual investigator and remains the lifeline of medicine.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
When Steve Robertson talks with undergrads who want to join his research team, he's up-front about what it takes to enjoy working in his lab. The first is viewing problems as a source of motivation rather than a source of stress. The second: a high tolerance for disappointment.
"It's not like a TV show where everything important happens in 30 minutes, then it all gets wrapped up," says Robertson, who has been a research scientist for more than 20 years. "You can spend a long time and be constantly knocked down by little problems. Sometimes nothing at all comes of your efforts."
And then again, sometimes something does. Take what Scott Weiss '00 accomplished during the six months of last year that he spent on a project of his own design. Weiss, who will enter Cornell University's Weill Medical College this fall, was interested in looking at what happens to a baby's head in relation to its eye movements--an aspect of the lab's studies on motor activity and attention that had never been investigated.
Weiss had to start from scratch by finding, then learning how to install and run, specialized image analysis hardware and software. He then wrote computer programs to apply the software to videos of babies taken during previous experiments. The technique he developed, which can be applied to future studies, moves Robertson's overall research program a step ahead, giving them measurements of a new variable--and a permanent tool for the lab.
Not all of the five to seven undergraduate researchers who join Robertson's team each year do whole-scale studies of their own. But all partake, to a greater or lesser degree, in every phase of a research project; modifying the computer software, which is designed anew for each new experiment; recruiting and bringing babies and their parents into the lab; choosing and then analyzing data relevant to particular research questions; and writing up experiments and then submitting them for publication or presenting them at scientific meetings.
Working in the lab is a very active experience, allowing students to learn the nature of science firsthand while making original contributions of their own. And in doing so, Robertson hopes they'll experience something novel within themselves, that they'll come to feel, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman put it, how sweet is the "pleasure of finding things out."…
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Publication information: Article title: Research in Child Development Then and Now. Contributors: Winter, Metta - Author. Journal title: Human Ecology. Volume: 28. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 12. © 2008 Cornell University, Human Ecology. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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