Infant cognitive development

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Infant cognitive development is the study of how psychological processes involved in thinking and knowing develop in young children.[1] Information is acquired in a number of ways including through sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and language, all of which require processing by our cognitive system.[2]

With its origin in the first half of the 20th century, an early and influential theory in this field is Jean Piaget's Theory of cognitive development. Since Piaget's contribution to the field, infant cognitive development and methods for its investigation have advanced considerably[3]—for example, see Neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development.


Main article: Nature versus nurture

Tabula rasa is a theory that the (human) mind is at birth a "blank slate" without any rules for processing data, that data are added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences. The modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in the 17th century.

Its corollary, nativism, argues that we are born with certain cognitive modules that allow us to learn and acquire certain skills, such as language, and is most associated with the recent work of Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, and Steven Pinker.

If one accepts that nothing is known until learned, and that everyone shares a basic common sense, it appears infants must—to some degree—make some specific ontological inferences about how the world works, and what kinds of things it contains. This procedure is studied in psychology and its validity is studied in philosophy.[4]

Jean Piaget[edit]

Through observations of children, Piaget established a theory of cognitive development. According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development there are four stages of cognitive development.[5][6]

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 24 Months)
  2. Preoperational Stage (24 Months to 7 Years)
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (7 Years to 12 Years)
  4. Formal Operational Stage (12 Years and Up)

Infant cognitive development occurs in the Sensorimotor stage which starts at birth and extends until the infant is about 2 years of age. The sensorimotor stage is made up of six sub-stages.

Stage Age
Stage 1 – Reflexes Birth to 6 weeks
Stage 2 – Primary Circular Reactions 6 weeks to 4 months
Stage 3 – Secondary Circular Reactions 4 months to 8 months
Stage 4 – Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions 8 months to 12 months
Stage 5 – Tertiary Circular Reactions 12 months to 18 months
Stage 6 – Mental Representation 18 months to 24 months

Lev Vygotsky[edit]

Lev Vygotsky was also very influential in cognitive development theory. His theory included the Zone of proximal development.[7] Vygotsky also believed that social and cultural factors contributed heavily to cognitive development.[8]

The Development of Mental Processes[edit]




Attribution of Causality[edit]

The perception of causality was initially studied by Albert Michotte where he presented adults with animated images of moving balls.[9] By manipulating the direction and timing of the moving balls (spatial and temporal dimensions) he was able to influence participants’ perception of causality. There is contradicting evidence on whether causal perception is innate and present at birth or whether it is a result of perception development. Through research with very young infants, many studies have shown support for the theory that humans are born with the mechanisms needed for the perception of causality .[10][11][12] Recent research has even shown this ability in newborns only a few hours old.[13] However, other studies have shown similar results received by Michotte (1976) in infants as young as 6 months, but not younger .[14][15] These studies support a more developmental progression of abilities required for the perception of causality.

Object Permanence[edit]

Object permanence is the understanding that an object continues to exist, even when one cannot see it or touch it. It is an important milestone in the stages of cognitive development for infants. Numerous tests regarding it have been done, usually involving a toy and a crude barrier which is placed in front of the toy, and then removed repeatedly (peekaboo). In early sensorimotor stages, the infant is completely unable to comprehend object permanence. Psychologist Jean Piaget conducted experiments with infants which led him to conclude that this awareness was typically achieved at eight to nine months of age. Infants before this age are too young to understand object permanence, which explains why infants at this age do not cry when their mothers are gone – "Out of sight, out of mind". A lack of object permanence can lead to A-not-B errors, where children look for an object at the location where they first discovered it rather than where they have just seen it placed.

Depth Perception[edit]

Studies in recent psychology[citation needed] also suggest that three dimensionality is not intuitive, and must be learned in infancy using an unconscious inference. (see depth perception)

Physical Laws[edit]

Largely thanks to the innovative strategies developed by Renee Baillargeon and her colleagues, considerable knowledge has been gained in the last 25 years about how young infants come to understand natural physical laws. Much of this research depends on carefully observing when infants react as if events are unexpected. For example, if an infant sees an object that appears to be suspended in mid-air, and behaves as if this is unexpected, then this suggests that the infant has an understanding that things usually fall if they are not supported. Baillargeon and her colleagues have contributed evidence, for example, about infants’ understanding of object permanence[16] and their reasoning about hidden objects.[17]




The most common technique used in research for testing self-awareness in infants a mirror test known as the "rouge test.[18][19] The rouge test works by applying a dot on an infant’s face and then placing them in front of the mirror. If the infant investigates the dot on their nose by touching it, they are thought to realize their own existence and have achieved self-awareness. A number of research studies have used this technique and shown self-awareness to develop between 15 and 24 months of age.[20][21] Some researchers take language such as "I, me, my, etc." as an indicator of self-awareness.[22]

Rochat (2003) described a more in-depth developmental path in acquiring self-awareness through various stages.[23][24] He described self-awareness as occurring in 5 stages beginning from birth.

Stage Description
Stage 1 - Differentiation

(from birth)

Right from birth infants are able to differentiate the self from the non-self. A study using the infant rooting reflex found that infants rooted significantly less from self-stimulation, contrary to when the stimulation came from the experimenter.[25]
Stage 2 - Situation

(by 2 months)

In addition to differentiation, infants at this stage can also situate themselves in relation to a model. In one experiment infants were able to imitate tongue orientation from an adult model.[26] Additionally, another sign of the differentiation is when infants bring themselves into contact with objects by reaching for them.[27]
Stage 3 - Identification

(by 2 years)

At this stage the more common definition of "self-awareness" comes into play, as described above where infants can identify themselves in a mirror through the "rouge test" as well as begin to use language to refer to themselves.
Stage 4 – Permanence This stage occurs after infancy when children are aware that their sense of self continues to exist across both time and space.
Stage 5 – Self-consciousness or meta-self-awareness This also occurs after infancy. This is the final stage when children can see themselves in 3rd person, or how they are perceived by others.

Symbolic Thought[edit]

Symbolic thought refers to the ability to use words, images, and other symbols to represent words or feelings. During the preoperational stage a child's capacity for symbolism increases, this is shown by their increase in language use during this stage. This can also be seen by the way children play with objects, a stick becomes a sword and a box becomes armor. Children in this stage still might not understand that a map represents a real place, and that a picture of food does not have a smell.[28]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bower, Tom (1977), The Perceptual World of the Child, London: Open Books, ISBN 0-7291-0088-X 
  • Bower, T.G.R. (1982), Development in Infancy (2nd ed.), San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Co., ISBN 0-7167-1302-0 


  1. ^ Oakly, L. (2004). Cognitive Development. New York: Routledge. 
  2. ^ Reed, C.; Groome, D.; Baker, K.; Heathcote, D.; Kemp, R.; Maguire, M. (2005). Introduction to applied cognitive psychology. New York, NY: Psychology Press. 
  3. ^ Bremner, JG (1994). Infancy (2 ed.). Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18466-X. 
  4. ^ "We acquire these ordinary [Common sense] beliefs at an early age and we take them for granted in everyday life; ... Then, because we are also self-reflective creatures, we turn back on our commonsense assumptions and find them to be more puzzling and problematic than we had bargained for. The concepts we habitually employ raise the kinds of disturbing questions we call philosophical'." McGinn, Colin. Problems in Philosophy. Blackwell publishing. 1993. pg 8.
  5. ^ Piaget, J.; Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. Basic Books. 
  6. ^ Piaget, J. (1970). "Piaget’s theory". In Mussen, P. Handbook of child psychology 1. New York: Wiley. 
  7. ^ Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
  8. ^ Harré, Rom (2006). Key thinkers in psychology (Repr. ed.). London [u.a.]: Sage Publ. ISBN 9781412903448. 
  9. ^ Michotte, A. (1967). The Perception of Causality. New York, NY: Basic Books. 
  10. ^ Leslie, A. M. (1982). "The perception of causality in infants". Perception 11 (2): 173–186. doi:10.1068/p110173. 
  11. ^ Leslie, A. M. (1984). "Spatiotemporal continuity and the perception of causality in infants". Perception 13: 287–305. doi:10.1068/p130287. 
  12. ^ Saxe, R.; Carey, S. (2006). "The perception of causality in infancy". Acta Psychologica 123 (1-2): 144–165. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2006.05.005. 
  13. ^ Mascalzoni, E.; Regolin, L.; Vallortigara, G.; Simion, F. (2013). "The cradle of causal reasoning: newborns' preference for physical causality". Developmental Science 16 (3): 327–335. doi:10.1111/desc.12018. 
  14. ^ Cohen, L. B.; Amsel, G. (1998). "Precursors to infants' perception of the causality of a simple event". Infant Behavior & Development 21 (4): 713–731. doi:10.1016/s0163-6383(98)90040-6. 
  15. ^ Oakes, L. M. (1994). "Development of infants’ use of continuity cues in their perception of causality". Developmental Psychology 30: 869–879. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.30.6.869. 
  16. ^ Baillargeon, R.; DeVos, J. (1991). "Object permanence in young infants: Further evidence". Child Development 62: 1227–1246. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1991.tb01602.x. 
  17. ^ Baillargeon, R. (2004). Infants’ reasoning about hidden objects: Evidence for event-general and event-specific expectations. Developmental Science, 7, 391-424.
  18. ^ Amsterdam, B. (1972). "Mirror self-image reactions before age two". Developmental Psychology 5 (4): 297–305. doi:10.1002/dev.420050403. PMID 4679817. 
  19. ^ Gallup, G. G. (1970). "Chimpanzees: Self-recognition". Science 167 (3914): 86–87. doi:10.1126/science.167.3914.86. PMID 4982211. 
  20. ^ Lewis, M.; Brooks-Gunn, J. (1979). Social cognition and the acquisition of self. New York, NY: Plenum Press. 
  21. ^ Rochat, P.; Broesch, T.; Jayne, K. (2012). "Social awareness and early self-recognition". Consciousness and Cognition 21 (3): 1491–1497. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.04.007. 
  22. ^ Bates, E. (1990). "Language about me and you: Pronominal reference and the emerging concept of self". In Cicchetti, D.; Beeghly, M. The self in transition: Infancy to childhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 165–182. 
  23. ^ Rochat, P. (2003). "Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life". Consciousness and Cognition 12: 717–731. doi:10.1016/s1053-8100(03)00081-3. 
  24. ^ Legrain, L.; Cleeremans, A.; Destrebecqz, A. (2011). "Distinguishing three levels in explicit self-awareness". Consciousness and Cognition 20 (3): 578–585. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.10.010. 
  25. ^ Rochat, P.; Hespos, S. J. (1997). "Differential rooting response by neonates: evidence for an early sense of self". Early Development and Parenting 6 (2): 150.1–150.8. doi:10.1002/(sici)1099-0917(199709/12)6:3/4<105::aid-edp150>;2-u. 
  26. ^ Meltzoff, A. N.; Moore, M. K. (1992). "Early imitation within a functional framework: The importance of person identity, movement, and development". Infant Behavior and Development 15 (4): 479–505. doi:10.1016/0163-6383(92)80015-m. 
  27. ^ Rochat, P.; Goubet, N. (1995). "Development of sitting and reaching in 5- to 6-month-old infants". Infant Behavior and Development 18: 53–68. doi:10.1016/0163-6383(95)90007-1. 
  28. ^ Hockenbury,Don and Hockenbury, Sandra "Discovering Psychology:Fifth Edition". Worth Publishers, 2010, p. 389.