Most parents view their child's development —
from those newborn gurgles and smiles to first steps, first
words and maturation into a thinking, speaking human being
— as a marvelous, ever-unfolding mystery.
At the new Laboratory for Child Development at the
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, those milestones are
fodder for research into everything from how infants keep
track of objects to whether babies and children are logical
and rational when making decisions.
"We investigate how infants and young children
perceive and reason about the world around them," said Lisa
Feigenson, co-director of the lab with Justin Halberda,
both assistant professors of psychological and brain
sciences. "Through our work, we have discovered that, in
many ways, children know much, much more than people once
thought they did. But in other ways, children per-ceive
the world quite differently than adults do."
Topics studied in the lab include how infants and
young children keep track of and reason about moving or
hidden objects, how children learn words for new objects
and actions, and how children understand numbers prior to
any formal mathematical education, among others. The
studies involve children ages 3 months to 6 years and take
place in a brightly painted lab decorated in a friendly zoo
"We felt it was very important that the lab
environment be cheerful and colorful and be a place where
babies, children and their parents could feel at home and
at ease," Halberda said. "We're interested in how babies
and children process information, and in order for them to
do that in the most natural way possible, they have to be
Lisa Feigenson and husband Justin
Halberda, assistant professors of psychological and brain
sciences and co-directors of the Laboratory for Child
PHOTO BY HPS/WILL KIRK
In addition to being research partners, Feigenson and
Halberda are a married couple who came to Johns Hopkins
from Harvard University last summer to set up and run the
new Laboratory for Child Development. Though their research
interests diverge — Feigenson specializes in the
study of how infants keep track of and remember objects,
and Halberda studies word learning and logical reasoning
— their goal of understanding how infants and young
children perceive and contemplate the world around them is
They do this through a variety of studies, all
approved in advance by an institutional review board. These
studies take the form of simple games that babies, children
and even their parents — all volunteers from the
community — usually find fun and engaging.
"In our infant studies, for instance, a baby sits in
an infant seat and watches a kind of show consisting of
objects or video animations," Feigenson said. "We record
the baby's behavior and measure how long he or she spends
looking at or reaching for an object."
What can the researchers learn from such a simple
exercise? Quite a bit, it seems.
"Babies usually look longer at things they find new or
surprising, so we can make inferences about how they
perceive and understand what they see by looking for
patterns of behavior across a number of infants," Halberda
said. "It's patterns we are looking at, and not
performances of individual children."
These patterns can inform parents, pediatricians and
scientists about what goes on in the mind of a young
"In infants and small children, we use behavioral
patterns to make inferences about babies' knowledge,"
Feigenson explained. "Not just whether they have or don't
have some bit of knowledge — such as whether they
know that things continue to exist even when they can't see
them — but also how that knowledge is structured.
Does one bit of knowledge depend on another bit? Does it
require experience in the world in order for it to develop?
Or is it hard-wired into the brain as a product of
evolution? And finally, how can a big blob of brain tissue
ever contain the complexities of information babies and
small children deal with every day? These are just some of
the subjects we are interested in exploring."
Johns Hopkins paid for the construction of the new lab
facility, and Feigenson and Halberda are in the process of
applying to the National Institutes of Health and the
National Science Foundation for funding for their research
Baltimore-area parents who are interested in learning
more about having their babies or children participate in
studies at the new facility can call 410-516-6068 or send
an e-mail inquiry to