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Study Reports Infants Can Learn from Lemur Screeches

Update Date: Sep 03, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

People often compare a baby's brain to a sponge due to the fact that babies can learn things very quickly. One of the earliest things babies learn is language. Even though researchers have studied the process of learning language, they have yet to identify just how babies learn different sounds and associate them to words with different meanings and concepts. In a new study, researchers attempt to uncover the learning process by examining how babies interpret lemur screeches.

For this study, the lead researcher, psychologist Sandy Waxman from Northwestern University, and her team decided to focus on two different sounds, which were a lemur's shriek and human speech played backwards. The team wanted to study the effects of teaching infants how to categorize. In their previous findings, the team had concluded that babies were able to learn how to categorize dinosaurs after hearing human speech segments.

In this study, the researchers had presented three-month-old infants with pictures of dinosaurs while playing human speech in the background. When the babies were shown new dinosaurs that they have never seen before while the speech segments continued to play, the researchers noted that the babies were able to better identify them as dinosaurs based on how their eyes moved. However, the researchers could not determine if it was the human speech segments that taught the babies categorization or if it was just the sound of the segments that helped babies recognize and categorize the dinosaurs.

"We reasoned that if the language effect that we'd seen earlier was nothing more than an infant's response to the complexity of the auditory signal, than both of those new sounds should help them form categories at this very early stage," Waxman said according to NPR.

The researchers theorized that if babies learned the sound as opposed to speech, the infants in this new experiment would learn categorization regardless of which sound they heard. The researchers proceeded to play the two different sounds to three-month-old infants. They discovered that the infants were able to learn categories after hearing lemur shrieks. They did not learn categorization with human speech played backwards. Despite this find, the researchers discovered that by the time the infants reached six-months-old, the lemur shriek was no longer effective in teaching them categories. At this age, human speech played forward helped them learn.

This finding suggests that there is a link between language and learning at a very young age. However, not everyone is sold on the possibility of a fundamental link between learning and language. Psychologist Lisa Oakes from the University of California, Davis states that the primate sound might just be getting the babies' attention as opposed to actually stimulating something linguistic-related in the brain.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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