These are hardly philosophical questions that the research is to study further: what we take with us from birth and how the adult individual is formed by the experiences from early childhood? Questions that by extension can give answers to how human intelligence develops at a level of detail never seen before, explains Gustaf Gredebäck, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Uppsala University.
“Thanks to the Wallenberg Academy Fellow grant, I have the possibility of combining experimental research to investigate the experiences of small children in interaction with the environment and genetic factors. The idea is to regularly touch base with the children to see what happens later in life. The ambition is to follow them all the way from birth up to adult life on the long term.”
Children’s gaze helps the researchers
Uppsala Child and Baby Lab is the world leader of its kind and the researchers there have developed new methods to study how infants perceive their surroundings. Among other methods, cameras are used where the child’s eye movements can be read. The child’s gaze can reveal what it perceives as normal or not, which helps the researchers interpret the intellectual development of the child.
“Infants actively interpret their surroundings the whole time. If I take a spoon with a piece of banana and feed myself, the child will look at my mouth before the banana reaches it. If I instead put the spoon on my head, major confusion arises. The nervous system is them triggered and the pupils grow in size because something happens that deviates from the child’s experience. In the earlier case, the child predicts what will happen, in the latter case, the child reacts to the illogical aspect of my action.”
To understand early human development, we also need to study the environment that the child is in, emphasizes Gredebäck. A lot happens around the little child, and it is the parents and the others in their surroundings who set the frames of reference for what is important. Infants constantly learn by interacting with the surroundings. If one looks at the child in the eyes, talks “baby talk” and tries to get the child’s attention in various ways at the same time that one interacts with the child and the physical surroundings, it strengthens the learning.
Early social skills have an effect on the adult age
Some people are better at perceiving social signals at an adult age, while others need extra support and help. The question is the degree to which this can be boiled down to the earliest experiences of the social environment. Fundamentally, it is believed that the child’s early social skills are significant to the entire life development.
“Everything sounds somewhat obvious, but we want to go deeper and find the exact mechanisms that are active and the exact areas in the brain that are activated. And knowledge is missing there today.”
Some hundred children are included in the study who the researchers, in cooperation with the Uppsala University Hospital, can begin following as early as pregnancy and at recurring meetings over five years. Part of the project is looking closer at the children’s cognitive and social abilities, temperament and parent relationships as early as six months of age.
“We will also study how easily children take in new information at the same time that we measure mathematical knowledge and understanding of geometry. All of this knowledge will be used as a base when we follow these children over the next few years.”
Through the project, a number of important questions can be answered. On a theoretical level, it becomes possible to study how people develop from infancy to adulthood, what we take with us from birth and how we are influenced by our surroundings. At the same time, the project will provide important information that helps the parents shape the infants’ environment in a way that strengthens their possibility of developing into secure, strong and inquisitive individuals.
Particularly vulnerable children
Research often stays on a somewhat theoretical level, but the scope of the Wallenberg Academy Fellow grant makes it possible to connect the research together with current social issues, Gustaf Gredebäck points out. It is done through two subprojects with the aim of studying two especially vulnerable groups: children of depressed parents and refugee children.
“Depressed parents have difficulty in being sensitive to their children’s needs, and we want to acquire knowledge about how the parents’ life situation affects the children’s development. A parallel is the serious stress syndrome that is often found among pregnant women who come to Sweden as newly arrived refugees directly from war or famine. There too, we want to find out how things go for their children later in life. The objective is to build up knowledge so that society will acquire better preparedness to meet the needs that exist.”
In the past ten years, the insight has grown forth in earnest that the small child builds up his or her view of the world in interaction with other people.
“Now, we can begin drawing the really long lines and investigate the ways in which one as an adult is affected by the earliest experiences and the mechanisms that are already formed in infancy. It offers hope for new and interesting results in the future.”
Text: Nils Johan Tjärnlund
Photo: Magnus Bergström