How much kid-stimulus is right?

Celeste Kidd from the University of Rochester writes in with news of a new study on PLoS One, which attempts to quantify the amount of stimulus that is optimal for amusing and engaging babies:

This video discusses the results of eye-tracking study we recently did at the University of Rochester that explains how babies organize their search for information in the complex world (and thus make their learning process much more efficient). The findings suggest infants look away from experiences that are either overly simple (and thus contain no new information from which to learn), or overly complex (and thus too overwhelming to learn from efficiently).

Infants in the study reliably preferred scenes that contained just the right amount of information--that is, those that were a little bit, but not too, surprising. We dubbed this attention pattern the "Goldilocks effect". These findings could have broad implications for human learning at all ages, and we hope the research will facilitate the development of more effective educational policies and diagnostic tools for attention-related disabilities (such as ADHD and autism).

Also important, especially for parents and teachers, is the fact that this study demonstrates that the same response--namely, disinterest or boredom---may result from two different, entirely opposite mechanisms. Children are likely to become disinterested if the learning material is either too simple, because the material is either already known or may be picked up and understood quickly; however, they'll also show that same response of disinterest if the material is overly complex, likely because such material is just too overwhelming.

The Goldilocks Effect (Thanks, Celeste!)


  1. this reminds me of some of the similar social research done in the 50s and 60s using different technology (flash cards and plush toys). The first thing I gather from this is that the findings can also be applied to grown humans. I know I look away from too simple or too complex tasks or situations. we all want a healthy balance between easy and hard. My children are already grown and in college, so I must have done some thigns right

    1. Recently i have been running into something related to alternative economics that they call the MEGO effect (My Eyes Glaze Over). It relates to trying to to explain the alternative economics models to traditionally educated economists, and having them basically loose focus from information overload.

  2. I seriously doubt the conclusions of any findings on optimum levels of stimulation that have been discovered by someone who arranges the contents of his bookcase quite so neatly.

  3. I’m sorry, but I fail to see how “These findings could have broad implications for human learning at all ages”

    when the paper itself features the almost meaningless conclusion that the results may suggest their findings are not inconsistent with the hypotheses of a handful of other studies! Good Gawd, they won’t even go as far as to say it does suggest!

    “Similar hypotheses about how adults allocate their limited resources in the language domain–for example, those supporting a uniform information principle [33]–[37]–may suggest that what we have observed in infants reflects a ubiquitous constraint across domains and developmental levels.”

    1. I dunno, it just sounds like responsible reporting to me. Only a study that actually looked at subjects “across domains and developmental levels” could say that they do suggest conclusions in those areas. This one is just about infants, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that infants might turn out to be cognitively different from adults in this area!

      1. I did my undergrad at the University of Rochester (graduated 2008), and I participated in a study (by participated I mean I did it because they paid me $10) similar – probably related – to this.

        They sat me in a chair in a completely blackened room with a large HDTV. I wore a headband with something to track on it and there were cameras tracking my eye and head movements.

        On the TV played a video taken by a small camera strapped to a baby’s head while the baby roamed around and played in a daycare-like setting, with other babies, adults playing with them, and other distractions.

        After the tracking set-up was calibrated with some calibration screens, I was told to just watch the video and given no specific instructions. I assume they were comparing “across domains and developmental levels” – i.e. they were comparing what adults like me looked at compared to what babies looked at in the same video.

        My point is really just that I think they do consider these questions, but don’t have anything spanning “across domains and developmental levels” that specifically applies to their research here. Perhaps they don’t consider it necessary, or perhaps they’re going to follow up with something like the study I participated in.

        I don’t know if this was the exact same people who did the study I was in, it’s a significantly large department.

  4. I don’t even understand how this idea isn’t already apparent….  I get that the researchers may be realizing and observing that infants are processing and learning at a faster and more targeted rate than they once thought, but the idea that easy tasks bore anyone is a little lost on me.

    However with that in mind, how do you work around the lowest common denominator issue?  Even in small children all the way through adulthood you see varying levels of aptitude for the same set of skill sets.  Some people find math easy, others chemistry, english, history, ect..  Unfortunately not every child or person can be taught on an individual level.  (Perhaps technology will help with that, but as of right here right now, classes of 20-30 kids is what we have.)

    -sarcasticly relevant thought: Perhaps the better way is for parents to push their children in what they are good at. Schools are good for the basics, but sometimes that extra step has to come from home. My parents aren’t really into science/engineering/electronics like I was as a child, but they certainly tried their best. (Still would have been nice to have that uncle who was the tinker/maker…)

  5. Well, I guess I can agree that simple tasks make them bored. I have a kindergartener and right now she is frustrated because the material is so easy.  Hopefully that will change next year.

    My 2nd grader is in the “excel” program so he’s actually doing 4th and 5th grade work. There are times he gets pissed at his assignments, but when they come home I help him look at things a different way so as to make him understand that there are more than one way to solve problems.  It doesn’t seem that they are really presenting that idea to them very much.

  6. The Goldilocks effect? Couldn’t have named it anything a little more specific and helpful? That’s an epithet that can be – and is – applied to anything that occupies the middle ground between not enough and too much. How about Stimulatory Zone? Oh, wait …Goldilocks effect isn’t so bad I guess.

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