Surprise events 'help babies learn'
An element of magic helps babies to find out more about the world around them, psychologists have shown.
Infants seem to learn best when their expectations are defied and they are confronted by events that make no sense.
Scientists in the US demonstrated the role of surprise in basic learning by setting up a magic show for 11-month-old babies who had not yet learned to talk.
Each baby was sat before a high table in front of a stage on which predictable and unexpected events were played out.
In one experiment, a ball was rolled down a ramp behind a concealing screen and stopped by a wall in its path.
The experiment was then repeated, but this time the ball appeared to have rolled straight through the wall - as if by magic.
Another "surprise" illusion involved pushing a toy car off a platform only for it to hover in mid-air.
The infants were significantly more curious about the surprising objects and keen to learn more about them, the research showed.
For instance, when the ball appeared to pass through the wall, they assessed its solidity by banging it on the table.
When handed a toy that seemed to hover in mid-air, they tested the pull of gravity by dropping it to the floor.
The findings, published in the journal Science, suggested that babies were born with a basic set of rules about the world which were then challenged.
Professor Lisa Feigenson, one of the researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, said: "We hypothesised that infants might use surprise as a special opportunity for learning.
"When one's observations of the world don't match one's predictions, this may highlight a place to focus one's learning resources - a chance to revise one's knowledge about the world in an efficient way.
"Using surprise to direct learning may be particularly valuable for young learners - infants - who have so very much to learn about."
Colleague Aimee Stahl, also from Johns Hopkins, said: "These results are important because it shows that infants can use their really sophisticated knowledge about the world about how objects behave to then harness or guide their future learning.
"At the heart of our research is the question of where human knowledge comes from."