Yale Grad Adeleine Huang-Vissering

A few months ago, I read a scientific study by Yale doctors suggesting that a babies’ reluctance to touch real plants compared to fake ones revealed something innate about brain development. Something, in fact, linked to our hunter-gatherer days. We are born to fear plants because, according to the researchers, back in the day, we were eating all of them and sometimes they poisoned us.

When I read the study, though, I wasn’t thinking evolutionary psychology or basic brain development. But rather, how the heck do these researchers control incontinent, inarticulate, and potentially cranky volunteers, and accomplish something at the same time? When I was home with two babies, a toddler, and two large dogs, I could barely get down the block much less do anything of any significance.

At Yale Infant Cognition Center, where Dr. Annie Wertz conducted the plant study, they know how to deal with their subjects. They allot 45 minutes for a two-minute trial. And while it may appear to an untrained observer as babies acting, well, like babies, the scientists believe their studies are helping to debunk former notions of baby brains. In other words, babies are a lot smarter than we ever thought.

Wertz is the sole scientist eyeing babies and plants. Her first plant study, published in January in Cognition, suggests that we are born with strategies to protect ourselves from toxins. A subsequent study, in the January issue of Psychological Sciences, explores social learning, as in babies learning that some plants are edible. She says they are gaining insight into how new information in our youngest brains gets woven into the stuff we are already born with.

Their lab looks like a pediatrician’s waiting room minus sick kids and nurses. There are dolls and stuffed animals and picture books and crayons and coloring books. The day I was there, the first volunteer was 21-month-old William Ingram, who was led into a small office filled with a black stage, like a mini-puppet theater built for an audience of one. William sat on his mom’s lap during the performance, that included an actor staring at apricots and prunes stuck onto plants. No dialogue. The point was to see if William would learn from the actor, as he seemed to like one fruit better than the other.

Volunteer number two: 18-month-old Jayden Coppola. He was nearly, what the researchers deem, a “Fuss-Out.” Parents can quit the study at any point if they think their baby is sad or uncomfortable. Researchers can call a “Fuss-Out,” for the same reasons. There is a list of criteria, including crying, crawling out of the chair, and eye-squishing. The researchers worked their magic and cajoled Jayden into the study room.

Which prompted me to compare baby Jayden to my teenage children. I figured one minute into the prune performance, they would have tweeted, texted, and snapchatted. Are these scientists really soothing the babies or are they catching these little guys before the rest of us have had a chance to destroy their attention spans? Are they studying relationships to plants or something about our inborn abilities to focus?

The last baby of the afternoon was nine-month old Adeleine Huang-Vissering, who fulfilled her part of the study quickly, despite a few pauses for her mom to wipe away slobber and then we all walked back to the waiting room where the scientists announced: “Adeleine, you just graduated from Yale today!” She got a diploma plus a t-shirt that said: “Yale Baby Scientist.”

On the way out, I saw a leaflet posted on the bulletin board soliciting dogs for a canine cognition study. I just may do it, so that the next time someone says to me, “My son got into Yale.” I can say, “So did my dog.”

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