Infants, Adults and Novelty

August 2009 - Infants who are excellent at processing novel information when they are just 6- and 12-months-old are likely to demonstrate excellence in intelligence tests and academic achievements as young adults in their 20's. This is the conclusion of a study directed by Joseph Fagan of Case Western Reserve University in the US with co-investigators Cynthia Holland from Cuyahoga Community College and undergraduate student Karyn Wheeler.

The study, "The prediction, from infancy, of adult IQ and achievement" published in Intelligence, looked at whether intelligent infants become intelligent and highly achieving adults. Fagan's tea, concluded that the answer is 'yes'.

According to Joseph Fagan, intelligence involves processing novel information and associating this with other information encountered through life, allow an individual's knowledge to grow. The Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence, developed twenty years ago measures infants' responses to pictures of novel objects. An infant pairs two pictures together for a set period of time, observed by a researcher. One of these pictures is then paired with a new image. The researcher again records the time the infant focuses on the new and old images. Normally, infants spend about 60% of the time looking at the new images.

In the study conducted for this paper, Fagan and his colleagues looked again at 61 young adults who had taken the Fagan Test as infants in the first year of their lives. IQ tests taken at the age of 3 were also compared with their scores at 21 years of age.

The researchers were able to show an association with intelligence between an early ability to process information and IQ during young adult years. Infants who were able to process novel information at an early age also showed higher levels of academic achievement later in life. The researchers argued that attention to novelty "tells us that intelligence is continuous from infancy to adulthood" and "underscore the importance of information processing as a means for studying intelligence."

Novelty and the Brain

Research published in the journal Public Library of Science Biology in 2006 identified a possible mechanism for how the brain allows us to anticipate future events and detect unexpected outcomes. Dr Dharshan Kumaran and Dr Eleanor Maguire at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London showed that the hippocampus, part of the brain believed to play a crucial role in learning and memory, predicts what will happen next by automatically recalling a sequence of events in response to a single cue.

The researchers used an fMRI scanner, which monitors changes in blood flow within the brain to measure brain activity, to show how the brain reacts to unexpected changes in a sequence of images. Subjects are shown a series of four images which are then repeated, changing the order of the final two. The hippocampus appeared to react when a different image appeared.

Dr Kumaran said:

"These experiments indicate that the hippocampus acts as a sort of comparison device, matching up past and present experience. It does not appear to be reacting to novelty as such, but rather to discrepancies between what it expects to see and what it actually sees."

The researchers suggest that when prompted by a cue, the hippocampus recalls a sequence of associated memories. This may explain how recollection of an entire past experience can be triggered by seeing a particular face or listening to a piece of music. The hippocampus appears to perform a critical comparison between past and present experiences alerting us to unexpected changes.

Dr Kumaran continued:

"Patients with damaged hippocampi, such as those with Alzheimer's Disease, often have trouble remembering sequences of events or finding their way around. This would seem to be because the damaged hippocampus is unable to rapidly bind together the many different components of our experiences into a coherent whole."

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