In Which Test Subject V Becomes an Actual Test Subject

For the last two Thursdays, I’ve packed Test Subject V up in her carseat, grabbed a diaper bag and some extra bottles of formula, and took her to Harvard. And then MIT. Because that’s what three-month-olds are really into—elite universities.

Actually, the visits to MIT were just to pop in on My Colleague and give her the opportunity to show off her daughter to colleagues. The trips to Harvard, on the other hand, were to participate in SCIENCE. Test Subject V has now been an actual test subject in two studies going on at Harvard’s Laboratory for Developmental Studies.

This is the outfit I dressed Test Subject V in before going to Harvard. I had to share it ’cause it’s just too adorable.

I would urge anyone reading this who has little kids themselves—especially if you are fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home parent—to look into labs like this at your local university. The studies they conduct tend to be non-intrusive, brief, and actually quite interesting for the parent… at least if you’re a parent who likes such things, as I apparently am.

And there are labs like this at universities all over the world, a fact that was highlighted by two clothes lines in the lobby of the Lab, hung with child-sized tee-shirts and onesies from university development labs all over the world. It was actually pretty cool to see.

Clothes Line at the Harvard Lab for Developmental Studies.

Anyway, I’m writing this not just to plug Harvard’s Lab for Developmental Studies, but to share an anecdote about my child’s reaction to the process, to talk about what made it really remarkable for me as a parent.

The first of the two studies Test Subject V participated in involved watching a video of a woman reaching over a barrier to touch a ball, which would then light up. When the barrier was removed, she continued to reach for the ball in a manner that, to an adult, makes no sense without the barrier there. It was as if she was still reaching over the imaginary wall to touch the ball. They monitored her interest by keeping track of her line of sight.

The next day, I was playing with V. I got out her “Groove & Go Beatbo,” a light-up plush doll that plays music. It’s always fascinated Test Subject V, which makes sense with the flashing lights and music. But she had never really reached for it before, she had just stared transfixed. She really didn’t reach for any toy, the closest she came to that was batting at the stuffed animals that hung above her play mat.

Groove & Go Beatbo. I stole this image from the Fisher-Price website, but since I’m plugging their toy, I’m hoping they don’t care.

But the day after she participated in the study at Harvard that was all about reaching, she reached for Beatbo’s antennae, and grabbed them. And she reached in the same awkward manner—as if there was an invisible barrier between her and the doll—as the woman in the video had. She reached for his glowing belly in the same way. She pulled Beatbo close to her.

I was fascinated—had I just watched my daughter learn something from the lady in the video, retain it for a day, and then use it? Or was it a coincidence? It was certainly a developmental milestone which was likely coming soon anyway.

I ran into the woman who had administered the test the next week when we went in for a different test. I assume she was a grad student of some sort. I told her about my experience, and she responded that it was interesting because we still don’t fully understand how children as young as Test Subject V learn—that’s the whole point of studies like this one. 

She said that most people assume that babies at this age learn primarily experientially, by doing. But that it’s also possible that they might also learn by emulation of others, which would explain Test Subject V’s actions.

I don’t know. If scientists aren’t certain, I’m not going to pretend to understand. But it was interesting, thought provoking, and just a cool experience overall.

I’d just like to take another second here to urge parents to take their children to developmental labs like this if time and circumstance allow. It gives us more information about how young children’s minds develop, how they learn, and it can lead to more evidence-based parenting advice, which is something we could all use, given how many books on parenting are deeply anecdotal, cherry picked, and often make broad claims on narrow evidence.

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