Laughing Baby
© Max Bukovski / Shutterstock
Believe it or not, there's a lot to be learned from babies. In the 1890s the American philosopher and psychologist William James speculated that infants do not enter the world as 'blank slates' as had been previously thought.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, James suggested that rather than passively absorbing information from their environment, babies come equipped with a great deal of built-in cognitive machinery already in place to help them interact with, understand and process the foreign world that they enter into.

One of the challenges of developmental psychology has been to understand how an infant's pre-installed cognitive hardware interacts with and processes its environment over time to acquire an understanding of things like social cues, the emotions of others, language and even the basic laws of physics.

One significant part of the challenge of understanding cognitive development in babies can be traced to the very simple fact that they have only a very limited ability to communicate. In fact, one could almost say that babies speak binary: They cry when they're displeased and smile when they're happy - and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot in between.

And yet for a group of scientists in London, the language of laughter is a rich and informative one that can help us to unlock many secrets in the development of the infant mind.

Led by Dr. Caspar Addyman at Birbeck University of London's world-renowned BabyLab, a team of researchers is preparing to study the laughter of hundreds babies in hopes of getting a closer look at how their cognitive abilities change over time. Addyman's team plans to study the interactions between parents and children ranging from infancy to 2 1/2 years of age.

"Much work is undertaken on infants' social and emotional development but up until now laughter has been strangely neglected, with most studies focusing on moments of stress and confusion," explained Addyman.

"I believe that studying when and why babies laugh will provide a good insight into what they understand about the world at different ages."

The basic idea behind the study is simple: Essentially all babies laugh in response to various stimuli. However, the types of things that they laugh and smile about change as they slowly acquire a more nuanced understanding of themselves as well as their physical and social environment. For instance, a baby may smile in response to its mother's beaming face at as early as 4 weeks old, but it usually takes many months before a game of peek-a-boo can elicit a giggle. Changes like these often directly reflect fundamental features of how the baby perceives its social, physical and emotional environment. And it is these features that Addyman's team plans to explore.

The BabyLab is a part of Birbeck's Center for Brain and Cognitive Development tasked with learning more about how children learn and develop during their first two years. The lab focuses on topics such as how babies recognize faces, how they learn to selectively focus their attention on different objects, how they learn to read social cues and how their language and understanding of the world develops.

To find out more, please visit The Baby Laughter Project.