Perceptual abilities in human babies
Giulia Lanza di Scalea
In 1980, William James published “The principles of psychology”, where he claimed that very young infants are not able to perceive what happens around them. He believed their impression of the world to be just a “great blooming, buzzing confusion”(James,1980), given by the fact that they are experiencing eye, ear, nose, skin and entrails stimuli all at once.
In the same years, Charles Darwin was writing the “Baby's diary”, based on his child's observation, which was though published just in 1877.
Darwin observed his young son during the first period of his life, and, just as James, he believed there was not a lot going on in his mind during his first month.
He thought the only perceptive experience he had was about the difference between brightness and darkness, which occurred very early in life, since the babies' eyes got stuck on a candle already during the 9th day.
So both Darwin and James thought perception in young infants was very basic, or null.
Nevertheless, they were proved wrong by subsequent research.
When we look at a very young infant, we can observe some neonatal reflexes, such as their tendency to suck, grasp and root. They also present the so-called Moro Reflex, which occurs when they feel as if they are falling: they tend to spread out and unspread their arms as if they were trying to grab something, and they usually cry meanwhile.
These are responses to some specific sensory inputs, that prove that infants can actually perceive some aspects of the reality around them, even in the first days of their life.
The most common method scientists use to understand infants perception is looking at their eyes: babies have visual preferences, and for this reason they observe different situations and objects for different time intervals.
Robert Fantz (1961) was a pioneer on examining children's visual perception.
He examined 1 week old infants placing them in a “looking...