A series of experiments with infants ages 5 to 7 months has shown that portions of babies' brains responsible for visual processing respond not just to the presence of visual stimuli, but also to the mere expectation of visual stimuli, according to the researchers.
That type of sophisticated neural processing was once thought to happen only in adults and not infants, whose brains are still developing important neural connections.
The researchers exposed one group of infants to a pattern that included a sound -- like a honk from a clown horn or a rattle -- followed by an image of a red cartoon smiley face. Another group saw and heard the same things, but without any pattern.
The researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a technology that measures oxygenation in regions of the brain using light, to assess brain activity as the infants were exposed to the sounds and images.
After exposing the infants to the sounds and images for a little over a minute, the researchers began omitting the image. For the infants who had been exposed to the pattern, brain activity was detected in the visual areas of the brain even when the image didn't appear as expected.
"This shows that infants not only learn about their external worlds, but are ready -- from very early in life -- to make predictions about the co-occurrence of events on the basis of very brief previous experience. This work thus has the potential to transform future research on infant learning to focus not on just what infants can learn, but to look at learning as a more active process, focusing more on how learning begets subsequent learning