Unlocking Infant Psychology With Dr. Scott Johnson

Unlocking Infant Psychology With Dr. Scott Johnson


Dr. Scott Johnson of the UCLA Baby Lab

Dr. Scott Johnson of the UCLA Baby Lab

BlackBoxPhD Checklist820.001Dr. Scott Johnson works at UCLA’s innovative Baby Lab. He also studies the development of perception and cognition in humans, human brain development, developmental disabilities, and learning how neurons in the brain connect to vision. Dr. Scott Johnson is a UCLA professor and the Research Director of the UCLA Baby Lab. This week he’ll talk to us about the special challenges of studying infants and how they make sense of the world around them.





Dr. Johnson, how did your interests in psychology, child development, and neuroscience come together?

I was somewhat adrift in college.  I tried many majors, but nothing really stuck, so I dropped out and went to work in a preschool, washing dishes.  I started hanging around with the children and found that they were absolutely delightful (I had no idea children were so interesting!).  I went back to school and started taking classes in developmental psychology to learn more about it.  I did well and my performance was noticed by my professor at the time, who suggested I think about graduate school.  Graduate training helped both broaden my knowledge of psychology and sharpen my own interests and skills.  Development is all about the causes of how humans come to be, and I can’t think of a more interesting or important question.

We typically give surveys or interviews to adults to learn about their psychology. Babies can’t communicate in English (or other languages) and they wouldn’t do too well with surveys, so how do you study children who are too young to be studied using these traditional psychology methods? 

 Infant testing protocols rely on indirect methods to assess perceptual and cognitive development.  One important measure that we use frequently involves recordings of infant eye movements.  Infants “tell” us what they are interested in simply by where they look, so we design studies to capitalize on this tendency.  For example, we get evidence that infants can discriminate colors by showing them a single color repeatedly until their looking declines (i.e., they get bored).  If they perk up interest in a new color after familiarization with an old color, therefore, we think this likely means they can tell the colors apart.  Careful studies like this can tell us a lot about how infants perceive and how their interests and thinking change with time.

One of the things studied in the Baby Lab is nature vs. nurture, or the role that genetics and environment plays in people’s lives and behaviors. How do you study this in infants?

One way we address the nature-nurture problem is to study learning.  Sometimes infants learn better with certain materials vs. others–for example, they are better at hearing certain patterns in speech vs. non-speech sounds–suggesting there is some bias or predisposition for processing or understanding some kinds of input.  A bias or predisposition can be thought of as something innate, or unlearned.


What have you learned about infants on nature vs. nurture? Are there dispositional or personality differences in infants before they are exposed to people? 

We tend to frame our research questions a bit differently.  All development happens from a starting point and happens within a particular environment, and these can’t really be separated.  Having said that, there are substantial individual differences between infants, in terms of skills, interests, and temperament.  We and other scientists have even found sex differences in young infants in their cognitive skills.


What is the most unique infant response you’ve ever recorded? 

I am always fascinated by what guides infants’ interest and curiosity.  Eye movements reveal much about development of learning and information processing.


I imagine that internal review boards (IRB) must be very strict as you’re dealing with such sensitive and impressionable groups. Have there been any mistakes you have witnessed along the way in your own or other people’s research with newborns? How were they dealt with?

Yes, there are many ethical considerations involved in infant research.  We deal with families who volunteer to take time to visit the lab, and we are mindful that we represent UCLA, and the field of developmental psychology more broadly.  We treat parents and children with utmost respect.  We are careful to explain each study in detail to the parents so they can make informed decisions about whether they will allow their infants to participate.  There are no known risks of participating in our studies, as they involve recordings of behaviors that occur spontaneously and naturally (e.g.eye movements).  I can’t say that I have witnessed any mistakes in my or others’ research.  Developmental researchers are a pretty conscientious lot, I think.

 Where do you think this field of study will be in 5 years? Are technologies changing or being used in research?

Progress in brain imaging continues at a rapid pace.  The brain is obviously quite complex, and the developmental mechanisms by which it comes to function are even more so!

What 3 pieces of advice do you have for people who have recently had a newborn or a young child? What activities, foods, etc will ensure proper development?  

Nothing ensures optimal development, and nothing ensures it won’t happen, either.  Having said that, if I were to give three pieces of advice…

  1. Sit and read to your child as soon as he or she will sit still in your lap, and continue as long as he or she will tolerate it (into childhood).  It is never too early to start.
  2. You will sleep again someday.  Try to be patient.
  3. Take care of yourself too, not just your child.

For more information on the UCLA Baby Lab and their research, please visit their official website. 

About BlackBoxPhD

I’m Sean Young, PhD, behavioral psychologist, educator, and Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I’ve worked with some amazing collaborators and friends on how to apply psychology in life.

I’m inviting you to online fireside chats with them to give you a sneak peak into their brilliant minds and help you improve your life, work, and relationships.

Together, we’ll interview experts in psychology, health, technology, and business. We’ll leave you with weekly take-home points to teach you about Psychology, Products, and People.

10 thoughts on “Unlocking Infant Psychology With Dr. Scott Johnson