Cognitive development

The environment around us is filled with a multitude of different objects. If we were to treat every aspect of the world as being unique and crucial to our understanding of the present, then we would soon become exhausted as a result of over stimulation. In an attempt to make sense of things we are required (perhaps unwittingly) to engage in a process known as categorisation. It is this process which allows us to view the world trough knowledge based on experience.

Recent research tends to suggest that the ability to categorise develops very early on in life and emerges it seems, in tandem with the beginnings of language. For example; “many studies have shown that infants aged 3-4 months can indeed form categories and furthermore, that they can do so in a remarkably similar way to adults.” 1 One such mechanism which allows the human animal to experience, categorise and store information is our fascination with the novel or the unknown.

Writing in 1903 the German Social Scientist Georg Simmel suggested that human beings have a predisposition towards seeking out the new and the exciting. For Simmel this is a natural part of our very being. Simmel suggests that; “Man is a differentiating creature. His mind is stimulated by the differences between momentary impressions which differ from one another. Lasting impressions which differ slightly impact less on his consciousness.”

It seems therefore that our preference for the novel over the familiar is an intrinsic component to our very being. Arguably our fascination with the new and exciting has become something that we associate with the human condition and can perhaps explain the motivation behind much of our behaviour. In addition it may be reasonable to argue that this predisposition for the novel is essential to our learning experience and therefore our continued cognitive development.

Fantz (1963) for example discovered that infants had a tendency to study new stimuli with much more intensity than objects with which they had previously become accustomed. During stage one of an experiment Fantz introduced infants to a set of pictorial stimuli which were similar i.e. cats. In stage 2 Fantz introduced a novel exemplar to the infants in the form of a picture of a dog. As hypothesised the children spent much more time analysing the image of the dog. What this experiment indicates is perhaps our “innate” predisposition towards the unique. In other words the infants have already analyzed and categorised the images of the cats. However the picture of the dog is new and requires the same process of categorisation. By contrast therefore the image of the dog is far more appealing.

As individuals move through their lives they encounter many new and wonderful sights, sounds and sensations. As adults we know how to organise information effectively (e.g. cod, herring, pollack, haddock etc) without this cognitive organisation life would be near impossible. Arguably, because children encounter a variety of stimuli throughout the day it is important that they learn to form groups of similar objects together in a very rapid manner.

In general it can be assumed that very young children group together objects that look alike. Younger & Gotlieb (1988) for example conducted an experiment whereby the infants were introduced to a series of dot patterns. The first set of patterns were distorted versions of original images such as a cross a square etc. The second set of images consisted of the original images and new novel dot images.

Yet again and through the familiarization/novelty-preference technique, it appears that the children spent far more time examining the novel images despite the original images being visually different from their experience. This evidence suggests that the children have the ability to create an “exemplar memory”. It is this ability which allows the children to; “recognise the prototype as familiar because it will closely match any of the previously seen exemplars.”

The same process it seems, allows for the development of “prototype abstraction”. Prototype abstraction affords infants and indeed adults the opportunity, to categorize the world much more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. For example if one was to analyse every minute detail to which we are exposed to everyday, then as already mentioned we would become exhausted. However through this process we can group things together which do not require enhanced scrutiny.

For example take for instance the amount of times in any one day that you may encounter a cat. The vast majority of the population have seen a cat countless times and unless the animal is particularly remarkable they generally have an understanding of the characteristics of the beast. A series of experiments conducted by Quinn & Eimas (1996) concluded that young infants also have the ability to categorise stimuli in a similar fashion thus indicating that such abilities are inherent in all of us at a tender age. In essence prototype extraction allows; “the exemplar that have already been seen to be perceived as familiar (and looked at less) and the novel exemplar would be perceived as less familiar (and would be looked at more).”

It is perhaps the ability to understand such familiar patterns and associated characteristics which facilitates the categorization of the world around us. For Eysenck (1984); “Pattern recognition allows us to assign meaning to visual input by identifying objects in categories.” 5 Pattern recognition suggests that children can; “form mental representations that group together similar things.” 6 However Behl-Chada (1996) wanted to establish whether or not infants had the ability to construct categories within categories. In other words was it possible for children to identify a hierarchical system of categorization allowing increased differentiation and reflecting a deeper understanding of the objects presented to them. For example could they identify different species of dog as belonging under one umbrella category?

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