Babies understand how people think at just ten months old

Babies might seem like they just sit there, off in their own little world — but it turns out their powers of perception are already shockingly advanced. Infants can actually understand other people's thought processes... even when what people think isn't actually true.

That's the finding of researchers at the University of Missouri, who found that babies as young as ten months old had already developed the cognitive capacity to understand what other people are thinking. While that particular form of abstract thought is of course essential to our success as a species, the fact that it develops at such a young age is still something of a surprise.

Developmental psychologist and head researcher Yuyan Luo explains:

"Understanding other people is a key factor in successful communication, and humans start to understand this at a very young age. Our study indicates that infants, even before they can verbally communicate, can understand the thought processes of other people — even if the thoughts diverge from what the infants know as truth, a term psychologists call false belief."

So how did the researchers determine all that? Of course, these infants can't tell us that they know what we're thinking, but it's possible to gauge infant thought processes by what they pay attention to, and how long they stay focused on it. In the study, infants observed an actor choose between a bunch of objects. When the actor changed his or her preference, the infants stayed focus longer, which suggests the infants understood something had changed in the situation - specifically, how the actor felt about the different objects.

Luo explains how the study also indicated infant understanding of false beliefs:

"When the actor did not witness the removal or addition of the preferred object, the infants seemed to use that information to interpret the person's actions. The infants appear to recognize that the actor's behavior comes from what the actor could see or could not see and hence what the actor thinks, and this finding is consistent with similar false belief studies that involve older children."

Sure, this is all pretty rudimentary, but it's from these sorts of gazes that all of the incredibly complex interactions that underpin human society are built up. True human understanding stars much earlier, and much more simply, than we ever thought.

Via Cognition. Image by juhansonin on Flickr.