Babies are surrounded by sights and sounds that shape how they learn. But little is known about what infants actually see and hear.
Caitlin Fausey is changing that.
The developmental psychologist is engaged in an effort with little precedent in her field: She is capturing precise visual and auditory information that infants and toddlers are exposed to daily. Her young subjects wear small digital recorders that capture experiences in their homes—a song on a radio, a mother offering a baby bottle or a sibling saying the word “no” when asked to complete a chore—that are stimuli for cognitive development. These interactions yield rich observations about the acquisition of language and knowledge.
More than 20 undergraduates support the research in Fausey’s UO Learning Lab. They comb over thousands of hours of recordings, carefully logging key audio and visual moments, converting each into standardized data that Fausey can analyze. They also guide families through their participation in the studies and work on research projects independently or with graduate students.
Above all else, they help Fausey solve problems. There are hurdles to overcome in any study and Fausey relies on her students to help develop solutions.
“It’s the first time anybody has tried to do this type of observation and analysis,” Fausey said. “There is exciting potential for discovery and observation and the students play a real role.”
Babies aren’t the only ones who grow during Fausey’s projects. Her undergraduates also have a chance to discover, explore and mature.
When she joined the lab in 2016, Sabrina Haskinson helped with poring over video and audio recordings. Over time, the psychology major has become increasingly engrossed in one of the main topics of the research—early sound environments that could set children up for success as they learn language. Haskinson is now studying how everyday sounds compare across families.
She has also become an important contact with the families who participate.
Haskinson initially helped with orientation, guiding parents through aspects of each study. As she gained proficiency, she added more responsibilities—among them, managing family records and collaborating with the technology team on the processing of data.
The biggest step came last spring, when Haskinson was entrusted to help with recruitment.
Even families that express an interest in participating in Fausey’s research must be made comfortable with the idea of attaching devices to their babies for hours on end—and effectively opening their homes to a team of researchers.
Haskinson talks regularly with prospective families. There is no secret to winning moms and dads over to the projects, she said—they must be met with honesty, sensitivity and professionalism.
“The most important thing is making sure that they trust that we will be responsible and ethical with the material they give us,” Haskinson said. “We are so thankful for this access.”
As research projects go, watching baby videos all day might sound like light work. Allison Zhou begs to differ.
The biology major spends her days carefully recording important experiences such as the presentation of a baby bottle at the moment a parent says, “Would baby like her bottle?”
Zhou makes dozens of decisions about which information to log and how to log it. If a child is presented with a toy house, for example, along with hearing the words “toy” and “house,” should she record that as two words? Or together as one phrase, “toy house”? Or something else?
Zhou and psychology major Alexandra Zakin were tasked with writing a manual clarifying how they had addressed ambiguities in recording usage of language, so that anyone referencing their documentation would understand how it had been classified.
The two also had long discussions about timing parameters for their data. They searched the literature for guidance and made the case that 30 seconds before and after hearing a word was a window worth capturing for whether the child saw the named object.
“It’s awesome that I can make a real contribution,” Zhou said. “In this lab, you’re encouraged to grow.”
A cheerful, bouncing tune can turn an irritated infant into a bubbly cherub. But exactly how often do toddlers hear happy, upbeat songs?
As one of the undergraduates running her own project under Fausey, Vinitha Gadiraju posed this question and found her own answer.
Gadiraju, who is majoring in computer and information science and minoring in psychology, is studying music as an auditory stimulant in childhood development. Working from a subset of the audio recordings from the subject babies, recorded in their homes, she is determining the frequency with which they hear happy, upbeat songs.
Identifying a song as “happy” and “upbeat” for the purpose of science is not as easy as it sounds. But as a classically trained violinist, Gadiraju brings special insight into music to the project.
She classified as “happy” those songs written in a major key, but then found it more difficult to characterize which could be considered “upbeat.” After some investigation, she found research supporting a threshold of 90 beats per minute, or faster, as her criteria.
After listening to hours of recordings for every tune that came within the child’s earshot through toys, radio, TV—even parents or siblings singing—Gadiraju determined that roughly half of the songs heard by babies in her study could be considered upbeat and happy. She is contemplating a follow-up study on the relationship between such songs and cognitive development.
Said Gadiraju: “There’s not much background on what we do—you have to do a lot of research to make sure your decisions are valid and can be backed up scientifically. It’s so exciting to be venturing into something new, especially as an undergrad.”
Photo at top of page: In Caitlin Fausey’s study, infants wear caps fitted with small cameras that record the world around them. “Most 2-year-olds know at least 100 words,” Fausey said, “but we don’t have a lot of data on how they learn them.”