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31 October 2006

When We Learn Most

The scientific approach to infancy: Sabina Pauen's book "What Babies Think"

Who am I? This question is as old as humanity. The Heidelberg scientist Sabine Pauen has taken an original approach to this problem. She studies the development of infants, more specifically how and what babies think. Are we "clean slates" when we arrive in the world or are we already "little Einsteins"? What skills do babies have at birth? And what skills do they need to acquire? Sabine Pauen's answers to these questions can be found in her new book "What Babies Think. An Account of the First Year of Life".

The author is professor of developmental psychology and biological psychology at the University of Heidelberg. She not only has many distinctions to her name but also two daughters, so she knows what she's talking about, both as a scientist and as a mother. She gears her research to the insights achieved in this field in the USA. Now, with support from the German Research Foundation; she has had the opportunity of experimenting with babies and finding answers to questions of her own.

While the book is not intended as a guide to good parenting, it is addressed to all those who want to know more about babies and the initial stages the human mind goes through. In other words, it is targeted not only at the experts but also at parents and other laypersons. This is a crucial point. While there is no doubt that the book is readily understandable, it is tilted more towards an expert audience and those experts will quite definitely profit enormously from what it has to say. For laypersons, on the other hand, the description of one scientific experiment after another does not always make for very entertaining reading, particularly as the set-up of an experiment is not always easy to communicate. The author does not regale us with anecdotes about the subject in hand. How, for example, does one organise an experiment involving 80 (!) babies? What little incidents happened on the way? This kind of information might make a book on toddlers a little more appealing.

That said, however, there can be no doubt that the subject is fascinating in itself, not least because babies cannot talk. That means that all kinds of little tricks are required to find out what is actually going on in their heads. For example, scientists measure the amount of time that babies keep their eyes on a particular object or how quick they are to reach out for something. A report from America is amusing in this respect. Expectant mothers there were fond of watching an early-evening TV series for relaxation purposes. After birth, their babies responded to the signature tune with obvious pleasure. One wonders what series it might have been.

After reading the book we certainly know much more about babies, their reflexes, the way their senses develop, the typical learning stages they go through and above all how successful they are — because one thing's for sure. The first few years of our lives are the time when we learn most.

Marion Gottlob

Sabine Pauen: Was Babys denken. Eine Geschichte des ersten Lebensjahres. C. H. Beck, Munich 2006. 232 pages, 13 illustrations: 17.90 euros.

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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