Does innate knowledge exist?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Humans are good at learning and we do it all the time, from the day we are born. But is all knowledge learned, or do innate concepts also exist?

This and similar questions have been asked in the field of developmental psychology, and prior to that by philosophers, such as Aristotle and John Locke. You might have heard about the nature vs. nurture debate: is a baby’s mind a blank slate at birth, or is it pre-packaged with basic tools?

There is now plenty of research demonstrating that a newborn is not a tabula rasa – an empty notebook waiting for the writer (environment) to fill up its pages. Right from the start, babies have knowledge of physics, numbers, and probability. But how can we know this when babies as young as 5 months can’t talk? Clever researchers have come up with a method that measures how long babies pay attention to things. This method capitalizes on the idea that babies look longer at things that are surprising, interesting, or otherwise novel or unfamiliar.

The above method has shown that a baby of a couple of months old already has some understanding of the fundamentals of physics. These include, among other things, that the motion of objects is coherent in space and time, that objects occupy space, and that one object cannot be in two different locations simultaneously. In a typical experiment, a baby is presented with a probable event (consistent with her physics knowledge) and an improbable event (inconsistent with her physics knowledge) while her attention is being monitored. Babies will become extremely surprised and look longer at a scene if it violates their expectations. Imagine you saw someone holding a ball and then letting it go. You would be hugely surprised if the ball stayed mid-air instead of falling. Upon seeing this, babies of 5 months of age cannot believe their eyes either, because it violates the laws of gravity.

In the area of numbers, similar results have been found. Six-month-olds have an approximate number sense. For example, when babies can see two screens, each depicting an array of constantly changing dots, babies look longer at the screen where the dots change not only in size and position, but also in number. It also appears that this approximate number sense is what children later build upon when they acquire more sophisticated mathematical skills. Indeed, the stronger a baby’s approximate number sense, the better their maths skills at the age of 3 years.

In addition to the beginnings of physics and maths understanding, babies have a knowledge of probabilities – and, use it to predict the outcome of events. In one experiment, 8-month-old babies were shown a box of balls: 3 red and 1 green. Then, the box was occluded and an experimenter randomly drew balls. What do you think happened when the experimenter drew a green ball? Well, babies looked longer – a clear demonstration that they understood such an event to be less likely than drawing a red ball. Babies can also do the reverse: They can infer the contents of a box only by having seen the balls drawn from it. Here, when babies see a blindfolded person drawing a couple of red balls, babies become surprised when they see later that the box actually contained a majority of greens balls, presumably wondering how it is possible that so many red balls were drawn?

So although no person is born with the ability to play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language – these skills require years of learning – some skills are in fact innate. The fundamentals of physics, number and probabilities are present in infants and later help them to acquire even more sophisticated knowledge.

Original language: English

Author: Julija Vaitonyte
Buddy: Rebecca Calcott
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translator: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor Translation: Jill Naaijen

Featured image by amyelizabethquinn via Pixabay (license)

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