Babies – Complex Learning Machines

To most of us, babies are innocence personified. To Teresa Wilcox, Ph.D., new chair of the Department of Psychology, babies are complex learning machines. She’s spent 30 years investigating what babies learn during the first few months of life and how their knowledge changes over time.

Wilcox didn’t always study babies. Her undergraduate concentration was education, psychology and music. Her family all taught K–12, but she opted for a masters degree in child development from the University of California, Davis and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Arizona, with numerous professorships and grants to follow.

Though she’s asked the same questions throughout her career, her research has evolved, from behavioral studies that timed how long babies watched events on a puppet stage, to recording babies’ eye movements as they tracked a face on a video screen or objects that moved in and out of view.

Now Wilcox employs a noninvasive optical imaging technique known as functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). A near infrared light, sensitive to oxygenated blood, is shined onto a baby’s scalp. From there, it passes into the brain. As the baby processes objects, activated regions of the brain receive increased blood flow and refract more light.

She has big plans for her department. “We’d like to get more top-notch researchers — people who ask interesting questions — and align ourselves with the university’s institutes, especially neuroscience, healthy aging, and sensing systems,” Wilcox said. She’s currently collaborating with a College of Engineering researcher who builds robotic hands for use in functional near-infared spectroscopy – or neuroimaging – studies to gauge babies’ processing of human and nonhuman hands.

Wilcox also stresses the importance of science communications. “As scientists we have ideas about why the questions we’re asking are important,” she said, “but it’s becoming more and more critical to communicate to other people why they’re important to understanding our world more globally."

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 Last Modified 9/18/18