How Surprise Shapes Early Learning

October 22, 2015 (Noon–1 p.m.)


Child Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB), Division of Extramural Research (DER), NICHD


6100 Executive Boulevard, 4B01 Conference Room, Bethesda, Maryland


Lisa Feigenson, Ph.D. External Web Site Policy, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of the Laboratory for Child Development at Johns Hopkins University, discusses her research on infant learning and cognition, including how infants and children perceive and reason about the world around them.

Understanding of early cognition has made great strides thanks, in large part, to infant looking-time methods. Infants' tendency to look longer at events that violate expectations has allowed researchers to characterize what expectations are in place at various points in development. Yet, it remains unknown why infants show this tendency.  

In this lecture, Dr. Feigenson explores the hypothesis that infants look longer at surprising or impossible events because they provide special opportunities for learning. Generally speaking, a learner with limited cognitive resources should allocate resources “smartly,” directing learning toward objects, events, or relationships for which prior knowledge yielded the wrong prediction. A new series of experiments from Dr. Feigenson’s lab supports this hypothesis. 

Results show that infants' learning is enhanced when basic principles of object behavior are violated, relative to nearly identical situations in which no such violations occur. For example, infants who saw a ball appear to pass through a solid barrier subsequently learned about the ball more effectively than did infants who saw a nearly identical event in which the barrier stopped the ball. Similar learning enhancements were seen across a range of surprising events. Furthermore, infants preferentially explore and test specific hypotheses about objects that have been observed to violate expectations.

Dr. Feigenson’s work finds that this surprise-induced learning enhancement is seen not only in infants and in looking-time paradigms, but also in older children in informal educational settings. Taken together, this research suggests that young learners use early-arising expectations to make predictions about the world around them, evaluate these predictions against the evidence, and, when their predictions are wrong, revise their prior knowledge. In this sense, core knowledge guides learning. 

This presentation is part of the Advances in Child Development and Behavior Research Speaker Series, supported by the CDBB.

This event is open to the public, but seating is limited; please RSVP to Laureen Lee no later than October 19, 2015.

If you require a sign language interpreter and/or other reasonable accommodations, please contact Laureen Lee.


Laureen Lee, CDBB, DER, NICHD
Tel: (301) 402–5261

Please note: Views expressed during NICHD-sponsored events do not necessarily reflect the opinions or the official positions of NICHD, NIH, or HHS.
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