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Study: Babies Understand More Than We Think

Tara Sgroi

We know babies soak up your every word, but it’s easy to assume that they’re merely hearing those words without understanding their meaning. But a recent study from the department of psychology at New York University, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, found that babies can draw conclusions about someone’s internal state and make distinctions between actual language and other sounds one might make.

Plus: Baby Sign Language: 21 Words to Sign

Researchers showed babies two scenarios in which adult humans tried to stack rings on a funnel. Some objects were out of reach for one of the actors, and the other was able to reach all the objects. The actor unable to reach the object either communicated to the other using a made up word, like “koba,” or coughed. The study showed that babies held their attention longer when the actor used the made up word instead of coughing.

According to the researchers, this opens up the possibility that babies can express broader, abstract concepts that have nothing to do with their immediate environment. “Parents point to things in the environment, and they say, 'That's a dog. Dog, dog, dog.'" Said study co-author Athena Vouloumanos, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at New York University. "But maybe they can talk about things that aren't [there]. They can say, 'Grandma has a dog. Yesterday, you saw a dog.' And maybe the infants can also understand."

Plus: 11 Important Cues from Your Baby

How do you communicate with your baby? Have you seen signs that they can perceive things deeper than the obvious?