We often think of learning as something we do in classrooms. However, unbeknownst to us, our brains are constantly learning and adapting to better anticipate and meaningfully interpret the sensory information that we get from the world. My research shows that even very young infants have this incredible ability and use it to develop sophisticated perceptual skills that reflect the structure of their world. These experience-based changes in perception form the foundation for essential perceptual-cognitive abilities: Language comprehension is supported by changes in speech perception, and social cognition relies on the development of face perception.
My research investigates how infants’ perceptual systems (visual and auditory) and learning systems work together during new experiences to support development. To uncover the interrelationships between perception, learning, and experience, I employ a variety of methods ranging from behavioral tasks to eye-tracking to functional neuroimaging measures (fNIRS--see below, fMRI) with infants as young as a couple months old.
I use a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which allows us to get a peek into the infant brain as it changes and develops! FNIRS is an emerging neuroimaging technology that is ideally suited for studying infant development. It uses very low levels of near-infrared light (less than an infant would receive going from a car to a building) to record changes in neural activity in the surface of the infant brain. FNIRS records a signal that is physiologically very similar to the signals recorded using fMRI. Importantly, this technique is extremely safe for infants and FDA-approved. Moreover, it is so comfortable that they happily wear the NIRS cap and continue exploring the world around them allowing us to get a glimpse into how a baby’s brain changes when she or he has new experiences!