Unlocking Infant Psychology With Dr. Scott Johnson
Dr. 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?
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?
Where do you think this field of study will be in 5 years? Are technologies changing or being used in research?
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…
- 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.
- You will sleep again someday. Try to be patient.
- 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.