**How children update their mental representation of an object**
Many studies have looked at how children learn about the world from what they observe, but how do children come to learn from what others tell them? Going one step further, when does the ability to learn new information about objects that aren’t even present emerge? This would involve bringing to mind a mental representation of the object and incorporating the new information into your understanding of, for example, what it looks like. Researchers examined this question in a study that looked at the emergence of young children’s ability to update their mental representations of an object based on information given by an adult when the object was in another room (Ganea et al. 2007). The two ages examined, 19 and 22 months, span the time when this ability comes online.
- Two identical stuffed animals (e.g., two green frogs)
- One different stuffed animal (e.g., one pink pig) to be a distractor
- One bucket of water
- Three aluminum trays
- A confederate
Start by showing the child the three stuffed animals and introduce one of the two identical ones with a proper name (e.g., Lucy). Show the child the other identical toy but do not name it and then set it aside. Finally introduce the different toy as a friend and then allow the child a few minutes to play with the named toy and the different, distractor toy. Check that the child learned the name for the target animal (e.g., by putting them both down and asking the child to “get Lucy”).
Then put the three animals away (e.g., in a basket) and leave the room with the child. While looking at a book with the child, the confederate should enter carrying a bucket of water and say that she planned to wash something (e.g., a table) in the other room (where the toys are). After 2 minutes, the confederate should return and say: “I’m so sorry! I was washing the table, and I spilled water all over Lucy. Lucy is wet now! She’s covered with water” (Ganea et al., p. 736). You can then say to the child, “Oh no, did you hear that? Lucy got wet! She’s all covered in water. Do you want to go see Lucy? Let’s go see Lucy!”
In the test phase, when the child re-enters the first room, she will see the three stuffed animals on the three trays. One of the identical toys and the different, distractor toy should be wet. The trays should be arranged such that the different wet toy is on its tray between the trays with the wet target toy and the dry identical toy. Ask the child to show the target animal: “Which one is Lucy? Show me Lucy.”
Notes & Observations
What did you observe? Which toy did your child choose? The child should choose the wet target toy if she has updated her mental representation from the information given by the confederate. However, she might choose the dry identical toy if she had not updated her representation of “Lucy” or the different wet toy if she was just interested in a wet toy.
Research Findings & Extension
The researchers found that 22-month-olds reliably chose the wet target animal greater than chance whereas 19-month-old children seemed to choose randomly between the wet and dry versions of the stuffed animal. Thus, children’s ability to update a mental representation of an object with new information that they hear about but don’t see happen emerges around this age. This capability opens the doors for learning all sorts of information indirectly and remembering it going forward.
Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E., & DeLoache, J, S. (2007). Thinking of things unseen: Infants’ use of language to update object representations. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734-739.