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Babies can think before they speak

If only some adults could do the same.

As if this movie wasn't proof.
As if this movie wasn't proof.

THE ABILITY TO know that while two objects may be similar – two pennies, two dogs, two cars – they are fundamentally different is a key factor in how humans operate differently from animals.

This analogical ability marks humans out from other primates and may well be one of the first things we learn.

In a new Northwestern University study, researchers found that infants are capable of learning the abstract relations of same and different after only a few examples.

“This suggests that a skill key to human intelligence is present very early in human development, and that language skills are not necessary for learning abstract relations,” said lead author Alissa Ferry, who conducted the research at Northwestern.

The researchers tested whether 7-month-old infants could understand the simplest and most basic abstract relation — that of sameness and difference between two things. Infants were shown pairs of items that were either the same — two Elmo dolls — or different — an Elmo doll and a toy camel — until their looking time declined.

In the test phase, the infants looked longer at pairs showing the novel relation, even when the test pairs were composed of new objects.

“We found that infants are capable of learning these relations,” said Ferry.

Dedre Gentner, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Weinberg, said, “The infants in our study were able to form an abstract same or different relation after seeing only six to nine examples. It appears that relational learning is something that humans, even very young humans, are much better at than other primates.”

For example, she noted that in a recent study using baboons, those animals that succeeded in matching same and different relations required over 15,000 trials.

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