CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY KENYON
300 Plaza Centre One
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: Nov. 12, 2002
UI professor studies attention, distraction in infants
the mental chaos of not being able to tune out useless information bombarding
us every day. This is the world of an infant -- surrounded by multiple toys
with a sibling playing nearby while the television picture changes second
by second and a dog barks in the neighbors' yard. How do they learn what to
ignore and what to pay attention to?
That question is at the heart of ongoing research by Lisa Oakes, an associate
professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Her
latest study, published in the November/December issue of Child Development,
shows that sometime between ages 6 1/2 months and 9 months infants develop
skills that help them control their attentional focus so they are not as easily
She and her research team studied infants playing with toys to determine
how quickly they could be distracted by a colorful blinking object on a nearby
computer screen. The 6 1/2 month old infants were distracted just as easily
regardless of whether they were playing with a familiar toy or an unfamiliar
one, but by age 9 months infants took longer to turn toward the distraction
while playing with a new toy.
"By 9 months infants had learned to keep their attention on the toy
if it was new and they still had a lot to learn from it," Oakes said.
"They turned to something new that happened if the toy was relatively
old and they had less to learn from it. Apparently, 6 1/2-month-old infants
have not yet developed the skills to help them prioritize these kinds of objects
She said one consequence of this developmental change is that older infants
are better able to learn about objects even when there are distractions nearby.
"We know that infants as young as 6 1/2 months have some control over
their attention," Oakes said, "but the results of our study help
to show that internal motivations -- like continuing to attend to something
you are actively learning about -- play an increasingly important role in
how infants deploy their attention late in the first year of life."
"The message is not that young infants should always be presented with
toys or objects one at a time," Oakes cautions. "Developing the
ability to focus attention in the face of distraction may depend on experiencing
the challenge of trying to focus attention on one thing while there are other
distracting objects and events nearby."
Oakes' collaborated on this research with University of Kansas researchers
Kathleen N. Kannass and D. Jill Shaddy. The project was funded by the National
Institutes of Health.