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The cognitive development of infants is a part of developmental psychology that studies the internal states of infants and very young children. How infants begin to think, remember and process information is valuable knowledge to many disciplines, and remains largely unknown due to experimental challenges, philosophical questions (see nativism), and infant amnesia.

With its origin in the first half of the 20th century, an early and influential theory in this field is Jean Piaget's Theory of cognitive development. Since Piaget's substantial contribution to the field, infant cognitive development and methods for its investigation have advanced considerably[1], for example, see Neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development.



Tabula rasa is a theory that the (human) mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences. The modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke's expression in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the 17th century.

Its corollary, Nativism, argues that we are born with certain cognitive modules that allow us to learn and acquire certain skills (such as language), and is most associated with the recent work of Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, and Steven Pinker.

If one grants that nothing is known until learned, and everyone shares a basic common sense, it appears infants must, to some degree, make some specific ontological inferences about how the world works and what kinds of things it contains. This procedure is studied in psychology and its validity is studied in philosophy. [2]


According to Jean Piaget's theory of development, the first stage of Cognitive development, (the Sensorimotor Stage) when the infant is 0–4 years old, is where an infant or child will use perception and motricity to identify the objects.

The second stage is called the Preoperational Stage. This stage appears between the ages of 0-2. In this stage, children are just beginning to develop their thinking skills. Children at this stage/age use words, symbols and images to represent the world.

The third stage starts at about the age of 7. This is called the Concrete Operational Stage. This is where the child becomes logical, but is only tied to concrete activities and tasks, meaning they can produce relationships and think in a sequence.

Then when the child comes into adolescence, they move in to the final stage called Formal Operational Stage. This is where the child can think abstractly—understanding algebra, for example.

Development of common sense


Causality rules

Babies less than a year old distinguish causal events from non-causal ones that have similar spatio-temporal properties. When one solid object appears to pass through another, infants are surprised. They distinguish objects that move only when acted upon from ones that are capable of self-generated motion (the inanimate/animate distinction)

Other people

They assume that the self-propelled movement of animate objects is caused by invisible internal states—goals and intentions—whose presence must be inferred, since internal states cannot be seen.

Physical Laws

Largely thanks to the innovative strategies developed by Renee Baillargeon and her colleagues, considerable knowledge has been gained in the last 25 years about how young infants come to understand natural physical laws. Much of this research depends on carefully observing when infants react as if events are unexpected. For example, if an infant sees an object that appears to be suspended in mid-air, and behaves as if this is unexpected, then this suggests that the infant has an understanding that things usually fall if they are not supported. Baillargeon and her colleagues have contributed evidence, for example, about infants’ understanding of object permanence[3] and their reasoning about hidden objects.[4]

Reference and symbolism

When an adult utters a word-like sound while pointing to a novel object, toddlers learn that the word refers to the object.


Self-awareness is widely believed among psychologists not to develop until mid-childhood, and arguably is present in only a few species of animals. Tests performed for self-consciousness include applying a dot on a subject's body, and then placing them in front of a mirror – if they start to investigate the dot, it appears that they may realize their own existence in a self-aware sense. Most other species will assume that the animal in the mirror is another animal.

Individuation and identity

Object permanence

Object permanence is the idea that the world contains rigid objects that are continuous in space and time. It is an important stage of cognitive development for infants. Numerous tests regarding it have been done, usually involving a toy, and a crude barrier which is placed in front of the toy, and then removed, repeatedly (peekaboo). In early sensorimotor stages, the infant is completely unable to comprehend object permanence. Psychologist Jean Piaget conducted experiments with infants which led him to conclude that this awareness was typically achieved at eight to nine months of age. Infants before this age are too young to understand object permanence, which explains why infants at this age do not cry when their mothers are gone. "Out of sight, out of mind." A lack of Object Permanence can lead to A-not-B errors, where children look for an object at the location where they first discovered it rather than where they've just seen it placed.

Studies in recent psychology also suggest that three dimensionality is not intuitive, and must be learned in infancy using an unconscious inference. (see depth perception)

See also


  1. ^ Bremner, JG (1994). Infancy (2 ed.). Blackwell. ISBN 063118466X.  
  2. ^ "We acquire these ordinary [Common sense] beliefs at an early age and we take them for granted in everyday life; ... Then, because we are also self-reflective creatures, we turn back on our commonsense assumptions and find them to be more puzzling and problematic than we had bargained for. The concepts we habitually employ raise the kinds of disturbing questions we call philosophical'." McGinn, Colin. Problems in Philosophy. Blackwell publishing. 1993. pg 8.
  3. ^ Baillargeon, R. & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in young infants: Further evidence. Child Development, 62, 1227-1246.
  4. ^ Baillargeon, R. (2004). Infants’ reasoning about hidden objects: Evidence for event-general and event-specific expectations. Developmental Science, 7, 391-424.


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