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See Inside October 2005

Big Answers from Little People

In infants, Elizabeth Spelke finds fundamental insights into how men and women think
Elizabeth Spelke and child



ROSE LINCOLN Harvard News Office

If you had been blind all your life and could suddenly see, could you distinguish by sight what you knew already by touch--say, a cube from a sphere? Would flowers look like flowers you'd felt and faces like faces, or would they all be confusing patterns? How would you start to make sense of the many objects in your immediate view? If we are born knowing nothing, how do we come to know anything?

Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth Spelke takes these questions to the people who may be best able to answer them: babies. Spelke, whose sprawling laboratory in William James Hall teems with infants and researchers who are interested in them, has addressed some of the most intractable mysteries of human knowledge by interrogating little people who cannot yet talk, walk or even crawl. She has what she calls an insatiable appetite for assessing these young beings. Through Web pages, flyers and letters to day care centers and pediatricians' offices, her lab mates ask anyone and everyone for diminutive volunteers. They watch as the little subjects sit on their mothers' laps, tracking the stagecraft that Spelke and her cohorts use to gauge early understanding of numbers, language, objects, space and movement.

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