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15 Adorable Facts About How Babies Learn

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For the first few years of a baby’s life, everything in the world is new. Learning is a 24/7 process. They have to figure out how to move their bodies, how to manipulate objects, how to understand and use language, and more. It’s an understandably exhausting process. Here are 15 things you might not know about what’s going on in the learning infant’s mind:


The parts of a baby’s brain that process sound start working during the third trimester of pregnancy, and it can remember what it hears in the womb after it’s born. For instance, one study found that Swedish infants only 30 hours old could differentiate between Swedish vowel sounds and the unfamiliar vowel sounds of foreign languages. Another found that when expectant mothers listened to a soundtrack with a made-up word, the infants recognized that word and its variants after birth. 


At just a few days old, infants use language processing skills similar to those adults use. People remember the beginning and ending syllables of a word more clearly, and listen for those semantic edges more carefully, since they often contain things like verb tenses and information about whether a noun is plural or singular. A 2015 study finds that long before they can talk—within two days of birth—infants are already using this trick, and can distinguish even when there’s a 25 millisecond pause between syllables or a small discontinuity in the sound that might indicate a different word or two separate words. 


Infants need to move their tongues to distinguish between sounds, according to a study of 6-month-old infants. Psychologists and audiologists found that when a pacifier prevented babies from moving their tongues, they were not able to distinguish between two novel “d” sounds.  


When babies watch an adult use a specific body part, their brains light up in the areas that correspond with that particular movement. A study of 14-month-old infants found that watching an adult touch a toy with her hand or foot activated the same regions in the infants’ brains associated with moving a hand or a foot. This neural empathy might help babies learn to imitate adults and make the same movements themselves. 


A 2014 study from Purdue University found that infants relate touches to the sounds they hear at the same time. Every time the experimenters said the nonsense word “dobita,” they touched the infant’s knee. Once, the infant was touched on the elbow at the sound of another nonsense word, “lepoga.” In a subsequent language study, the infants pulled the word “dobita” out of a stream of words, suggesting that the consistent touch helped them learn the word. 


Several studies have found that social interaction is key to babies’ early language acquisition. One study of 10-month-old babies who received Spanish tutoring found that when babies tracked their tutor and the toys she was holding more carefully, the infants had a boost in brain response. In other words, their social interaction boosted their ability to absorb the lesson. Previous research has shown that babies learn better through interactions with people than through video or audio recordings. 


Before a child learns to understand language, talking sounds a lot like music—it’s repetitive and rhythmic. “So while music and language may be cognitively and neurally distinct in adults,” as psychologists write in a 2012 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, we suggest that language is simply a subset of music from a child’s view.” The authors suggest that a child’s understanding of music parallels its initial acquisition of language, and merits a central place in our understanding of human development.


A 2012 study of 1-year-old infants found that interactive music classes lead to better communication. The babies learned to play percussion instruments and sing songs with their parents in an early music class. Compared with a control group, these children showed a greater sensitivity to musical structures and tones, along with better early communication skills like waving goodbye or pointing to an object they wanted. 


Babies develop a sense of humor around 18 months old. One recent study found that laughing can help kids learn new tasks. In it, 53 babies were taught to retrieve a toy duck with the help of a cardboard rake. Babies that laughed in response to the researcher’s demonstration were much better at performing the task than a control group. Almost 95 percent of the kids who laughed raked the duck over successfully. 


Infants learn best when they’re surprised, a recent study found. When an object behaved in an unusual way—like a ball that appears to pass through a wall—11-month-old babies paid more attention to it, and chose to explore it more. They handled the ball and tried to test its solidity, learning more about the world in the process. When the ball behaved in predictable ways, they didn’t focus on it or try to learn more. 


Very early in life, infants learn to make predictions based on their previous experience. A study of 5- to 7-month-old infants found that the part of the brain that responds to visual stimuli also responds to just the expectation of seeing something. The researchers showed a group of babies a pattern of images and sounds—a honk or a rattle followed by a red smiley face. When they stopped showing the image but played the sounds, the babies still showed activity in the visual response areas of their brains. 


If babies didn’t spend so much time sleeping, they probably wouldn’t remember what they learned. Infants are constantly learning during their first year, and they’re also constantly napping—they’re rarely awake for more than four hours at a stretch. In an experiment where researchers taught babies how to remove a puppet’s mitten and find a hidden bell, infants who napped right after the demonstration were better at recalling the demonstration. This ties in with research that finds that adults, too, consolidate memories as they sleep. 


Think your baby is only listening to you? Think again. Infants can also learn from lemur vocalizations, a 2013 study found. In it, 3-month-old babies looked at images of dinosaurs while some sort of sound played in the background—human speech played backwards, and lemur shrieks. A previous experiment found that babies learned categories of dinosaurs better when human speech played. However, the backward speech—essentially just random sound—didn’t help the babies learn. The shrieks of lemurs, however, did, suggesting that even if babies don’t understand the language, vocalizations can stimulate their learning process. 


Babies’ senses start working before they’re even born, and they can learn to enjoy certain flavors and odors in the womb. One study found that babies whose mothers drank carrot juice for three weeks straight during their last trimester of pregnancy enjoyed the flavor of carrots more when their mother introduced them to solid foods compared to infants who hadn’t been exposed to carrot juice in the womb and during lactation. Another study found that infants whose mothers consumed anise (a plant with a similar flavor to licorice) during pregnancy showed a preference to the smell immediately after birth and when they were four days old. Babies in the control group showed a clear aversion or no response to the smell. 


While infants’ capabilities for absorbing new information are amazing, they aren’t miraculous. Some educational companies advertise the ability to make even a 3-month-old literate, but a 2014 study of infants and their parents found that literacy DVDs and other media tools geared toward infants under 18 months weren’t effective in establishing the ability to read. They did, however, make the parents feel like their kid was learning. 

All images via iStock

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.