Infant Curiosity May Predict Future Cognitive Abilities

shocked baby

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Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests that the most curious babies become the most curious toddlers.
  • The longitudinal study of infant curiosity found that pre-verbal babies who were most interested in magic tricks maintained that curiosity into toddlerhood. 
  • Parents and caregivers can use games like peek-a-boo to stimulate and observe their baby’s curiosity levels.

Humans are curious creatures from birth, and that natural desire to understand how the world works becomes really apparent during the toddler phase. While newborns use their eyes to investigate faces and sounds, toddlers can grab interesting objects and become engrossed in a wide range of activities.

While previous research on curiosity involved older children and adults, a recent study from John Hopkins University, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the initial studies to focus on pre-verbal babies.

If your toddler is captivated by magic tricks and can’t get enough of illusions and other fascinating antics, this could be a prediction of their future cognitive ability, say the researchers.

A Closer Look at the Study

To figure out to what extent individual babies respond to the world differently, the researchers studied 65 babies over time, gauging their interest in magic tricks.

At 11 months old, researchers showed some babies a toy with normal functions, while others saw the toy appear to pass straight through a wall. When the babies were 17 months old, they saw either a new toy that behaved normally or one that seemed to float in mid-air. 

"We found that some babies are affected more by surprising events than others," says co-author Jasmin Perez, PhD, from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins. "They look for longer when an object appears to have passed through a solid barrier at 11 months. And they are the ones who look the longest when a new object appears to hover in midair at 17 months."

There was also little change in how long the least interested babies looked at the toys over the same period.

Sarah Rahal, MD

Infants notice novelty and this preference for novelty—looking longer at new stimuli—has been found to be a predictor of future intelligence. 

— Sarah Rahal, MD

The researchers' plan to bring the children back to the lab at age three was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they sent follow-up “curiosity questionnaires” to the kids' parents, which confirmed that the babies who looked longest at the “unexpected events” were rated by their parents as being the most curious.

According to the researchers, a pre-verbal baby's degree of interest in surprising aspects of the world remains constant over time and could forecast their future cognitive ability.

"These data are the first to measure stable individual differences in responses to surprising events in infancy and to demonstrate that those responses may be meaningfully related to how people behave in the future," Perez says. "Whether this variability persists into later childhood or adulthood is an open question and would be incredibly interesting to explore further."

Raising Curious Babies

Don’t worry if you don’t feel confident in your magic skills. Parents can create surprising aspects in life in various different ways. “Very early in life, infants learn what to expect happens in certain situations,” says pediatric neurologist and Verywell Family review board member Sarah Rahal, MD.

Any deviation from an expected outcome is new, and therefore an opportunity for the brain to learn. So infants perceive it as interesting and surprising, Dr. Rahal explains. 

“You could play with objects so that they seem to disappear, to multiply, or to defy the laws of gravity,” she suggests. “Or engage with a feather-like object as if it's heavy.” And don't forget the old favorite, peek-a-boo.

Infants are also born with an innate sense of fairness, Dr. Rahal points out. So it would also surprise an infant if you were to distribute cookies amongst three people and let's say, two people got three cookies and the last person only got one cookie. This can also be done through make-believe playing with puppets or dolls.

Sarah Rahal, MD

You could play with objects so that they seem to disappear, to multiply, or to defy the laws of gravity. Or engage with a feather-like object as if it's heavy.

— Sarah Rahal, MD

Dr. Rahal notes that generally, cognitive development follows a specific sequence and schedule that's consistent between infants and across cultures.

"It's clear that very delayed achievement of these milestones in infancy predicts cognitive impairment later in life, but less clear that early achievement predicts a meaningful increase in IQ (intelligence) later on," she says. "Studies show this increase to be very slight."

However, she does recognize that looking at infant behavior may be a potentially useful predictor of future cognitive abilities. "Infants notice novelty and this preference for novelty—looking longer at new stimuli—has been found to be a predictor of future intelligence," she explains.  

What This Means For You

All babies have different temperaments, so don't worry if your little one doesn't seem particularly impressed by your peek-a-boo attempts, or loses interest in make-believe play. What's important is that they're happy, healthy, and meeting all their developmental milestones.

Of course, if you have any concerns about any aspect of your infant's health or development, check-in with their pediatrician to put your mind at ease.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Perez J, Feigenson L. Stable individual differences in infants’ responses to violations of intuitive physics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021 July. doi:10.1073/pnas.2103805118

  2. Ziv T, Sommerville JA. Developmental differences in infants’ fairness expectations from 6 to 15 months of age. Child Development. 2016;88(6). doi:10.1111/cdev.12674

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.