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Infancy Research in Prague 1953–1970:
Infant Learning and Cognition

Research Institute for the Care of Mother and Child in Prague:
Experimental Research on Infant Learning in the Late Fifties and Sixties

Sources – Excerpts from

Papoušek, M. (2003). Reflections on ‘H. Papoušek (1969): Experimental studies of appetitional behavior in human newborns and infants.’ In: J. W. Hayne and H. Fagan (eds.), Progress in infancy research. Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum, Vol. 4: 44–50.”

Papoušek, M. (2004). Unpublished original English manuscript for publication in Czech language. In: J. Dittrichová, M. Papoušek and K. Paul (Eds.), Infant behavior and parental care. Prague: Grada Publisher: 77–100.

Due to exceptionally advantageous circumstances at the Prague Institute for the Care of Mother and Child, Hanuš Papoušek and his research team were able to investigate infant learning and problem solving with innovative experimental designs, at a time when infant learning and mental development was still an almost completely unknown territory of research. Their interest had gone well beyond the question whether and how early infants are able to learn. A unique combination of experimental and observational methods allowed analyzing how infants learned, how they processed information, and how they would cope with the experimental demands. Moreover, the design opened a window into intrinsic mental and affective processes involved in the course of learning.

Over the years, up to 300 infants were cared for, observed and studied day by day in a lying-in unit at the Institute where they were living with their mothers. Testing occurred daily during the normal feeding period after the morning nap. The infant was lying comfortably in a crib. To describe the procedure in its initial basic form: The infant was reinforced for a head-turn response (by 30° to the left) to the conditioning sound of a bell with a portion of milk as part of the regular meal (milk was presented from the left side through a nipple connected to a thermos bottle). Hanus’ interest in the course of learning required systematic behavioral observations and coding of visual, vocal, facial and oral responses observations and polygraphic recordings of general motor activity, head turning (in a padded head-cradle), and breathing.

What made these studies special?

Integrative competencies involved in preverbal learning

The experiments revealed that infant learning includes a variety of perceptual and cognitive processes. To begin with, head turning served as a model to analyze how voluntary goal-directed behavior (head turning in this case) develops from an innate rooting reflex to a number of well-coordinated, learned responses such as appetite-related head turns, orienting head turns, or avoiding/aversive head turns. Integrative processes included cross-modal integration of auditory, gustatory and proprioceptive stimulation; detection and control of contingent events; detection of and coping with rules; build-up of expectancies and coping with their violation; problem solving and avoidance or rejection of unsolvable problems (H. Papoušek, 1967).

Involvement of autonomic and affective processes in infant learning

Throughout the course of learning, the infants also responded with facial, vocal, motor, and autonomic behavior – communicating to the observer how they were coping with the experimental situation. The infants’ feedback cues included information about their momentary affective arousal or tension, their emotional involvement, level of interest, limits of tolerance, rejection of irresolvable problem situations, or protest against any violation of expectancy (as present, for instance, in the extinction episode when the contingent reward was omitted). The repertoire of observable infant cues, (such as visual attention and exploration, brow-knitting, facial and vocal expressions of either displeasure or pleasure, hand gestures or changes in general movements) turned out to be related to the course of learning and problem solving (H. Papoušek, 1967; 1969; H. Papoušek & M. Papoušek, 1984).

Before the infant was able to coordinate a full head turn, half of the newborns turned to the left only their eyes, or to contract only their mouth to the left. Others produced exaggerated head turns, increased their general motor activity, breathing, and heart rate, and eventually fussed or cried; or briefly detached from the problem in a sleep-like state as if to protect themselves from excessive arousal. Stable conditioning, in turn, was associated with economic, well-coordinated, goal-directed head turns, anticipatory mouth opening, and slight signs of pleasure. Extinction, an obligatory procedure in conditioning research, provided insight into infant responses to a major violation of expectancy, which elicited general motor and autonomic activation, exaggerated attempts to re-elicit the conditioned reward, distress and finally head aversion from what proved to be an unsolvable problem for the infant.

Infant constraints and need for regulatory support

Even newborns were able to reach the researcher’s rigid criterion of successful learning, yet their success in learning depended to a large degree on the experimenter’s sensitive respect to the infant’s momentary behavioral state and limits of tolerance: slower tempo of stimulus presentation; larger number of repetitions; longer pauses for recovery; and – particularly in the beginning – some prompting support.

Intrinsic motivation to learn

The infants’ behavioral cues also indicated a strong motivation for explorative engagement in the experimental environment. The infants invested a high amount of energy and effort – sometimes beyond their limits of tolerance – in order to figure out the correct solution of the problem. They seemed to explore first by trial and error, and then to cope on the base of various “hypotheses”. Once they had mastered the problem, they kept repeating the correct response to the sound with well-coordinated economic movements and with clear signs of contentment and pleasure. Moreover, special experimental modifications confirmed the assumption of some intrinsic motivational process related to the infants’ experience of self-efficacy and goal-directed intentional behavior: when they were already satiated from the external reinforcement and rejected the milk, they showed signs of pleasure and eventually continued to respond to the sound (H. Papoušek, 1967).

The experimental evidence of amazing integrative competencies in human newborns clearly indicated innate predispositions in infants along with distinct signs of intrinsic motivation and basic needs; i.e., needs to learn, to become familiar with the unknown, and to actively interact and cope with the environment. Longitudinal studies of that competence showed that integrative capacities become faster and more efficient as they develop under the influences of maturation, accumulated experience, and experimental facilitation, with an impressive shift at the age of three months (H. Papoušek, 1967; H. Papoušek & M. Papoušek, 1984).

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