If you think that babies are too young to understand the meaning of certain words you might speak in their presence, think again.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have demonstrated that babies slightly older than 1 year of age not only have the capacity to process words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, but they are capable of grasping the meaning of those words. The study was published online Jan. 5, 2011, in Cerebral Cortex (doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhq259).
Led by Dr. Katherine E. Travis, of the university’s department of neurosciences, the researchers used MRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—an imaging process that measures tiny magnetic fields emitted by neurons in the brain—to estimate the brain activity in infants that ranged in age from 12-18 months.
In the first of two experiments, the babies listened to words accompanied by sounds with similar acoustic properties, but no meaning, in order to determine if they were capable of making a distinction between the two.
In the second experiment the babies viewed pictures of familiar objects and then heard words that were either matched or mismatched to the name of the object: a picture of a ball followed by the spoken word ball, versus a picture of a ball followed by the spoken word dog.
Brain activity from the MRI and MEG readings indicated that the infants were capable of detecting the mismatch between a word and a picture.“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood,” Dr. Travis said in a press release about the study.
— Doug Brunk (on Twitter@dougbrunk)