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Baby brainwave study investigates infant learning

A Birkbeck baby brainwave study points towards more reliable way of investigating learning in infants.

A more reliable method of investigating infants’ learning processes has been discovered by researchers at Birkbeck, University of London.

New research carried out by the College’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) suggests that memory formation in infants can be predicted by observing a certain rhythm of brain activity – theta oscillations.

This new study represents a novel way of investigating predictors of learning success in infancy as previous approaches have relied heavily on behavioural measures, such as visual attention. The amount of time infants look at an object does not necessarily predict better encoding - the first step to creating a new memory - and so studying brain waves is potentially far more reliable.

The research method

  • The Birkbeck-led study involved analysing 11-month-old infants’ theta oscillations while they explored novel objects. This was followed by a preferential-looking test to measure those infants’ recognition of the explored objects later on.

The results

  • The results demonstrated that theta-band oscillations recorded during an infant’s object exploration predicted the subsequent recognition of those objects in a later test.
  • This finding, which has been published today (Wednesday 27 March) in Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, is hoped to enable researchers to investigate what makes babies attend to some things and not others. In turn, these findings could be applied directly to parenting and early education settings with the aim of nurturing young children’s curiosity.

What the researcher said

  • Katarina Begus, PhD student at the CBCD and a principal author of the study, said:
  • “The results of this study are a very important step towards a better understanding of what drives individual and situational differences in infants’ learning.
  • “We already know from previous research that theta oscillations are modulated by motivation to learn in adults. Investigating infants’ motivation or interests is trickier, because they are not able to tell us what they are curious about.
  • “By studying these brain waves we might now be able to explore curiosity and interest in infants even before they can behaviorally express them. This could therefore point towards what drives individual differences in inquisitiveness, which we know lead to differences in later academic success.
  • “Given the role curiosity plays in individuals academic and personal development, we think it’s important to study the earliest signs of it and discover how this curiosity can be nurtured or hindered throughout schooling and development.”

Looking ahead, and the Babylab

  • The experiment was carried out through the CBCD’s Babylab – a team of Birkbeck researchers who study children aged one month to three years, to understand how they learn, develop and think.
  • Ms Begus’ previous research through the Babylab, supervised by Dr Teodora Gliga and Dr Victoria Southgate, has focused on infants’ curiosity, such as investigating early inquisitive behaviours, how infants seek information, how they explore their environment and request information from adults.
  • Commenting on this common thread of investigation, Ms Begus added: “Essentially, we want to better understand where individual differences in inquisitive behaviour come from. We have several hypotheses for this – such as general cognitive abilities, and parental responsiveness - and the approach taken in this new study is an important step towards investigating these questions.”

Birkbeck’s Babylab is currently seeking participants for further studies in this area. To find out more, visit the Babylab page.

Find out more


  • Theta oscillations are a frequency of brain waves that can be observed with an electroencephalograph (EEG). This frequency of brain waves has been previously shown to be involved in successful memory formation in adults and is known to be modulated by an individual's motivation to learn.

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