Figuring out babies

The Journal spends a day learning about infant goal setting at a evelopmental psychology lab

Brynn Evans, eight-month-old subject at the Infant Cognition Lab, is given two toys to choose from graduate student Liz Hallinan as Brynn’s mother, Christa Moran, looks on.
Brynn Evans, eight-month-old subject at the Infant Cognition Lab, is given two toys to choose from graduate student Liz Hallinan as Brynn’s mother, Christa Moran, looks on.
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As soon as I walked into Valerie Kuhlmeier’s lab in Humphrey Hall I realized it wasn’t your typical science experiment.

Instead of white lab coats and test tubes, there were colourful toys and comfortable furniture. It was as though I stepped back in time to my childhood playrooms—except with much less clutter.

The unexpectedly welcoming environment is intentional. Kuhlmeier is head of the Infant Cognition Lab, which studies aspects of infant cognitive development. Their test subjects generally range from three months to three years in age.

I met up with Kuhlmeier—who holds a Canada Research Chair position in Cognitive Development—at 8:45 a.m. on a cold Wednesday last week.

We started out in her primary lab, where graduate student Liz Hallinan and lab co-ordinator Vivian Lee were preparing for the day’s first test subject.

Kuhlmeier said the lab usually does multiple tests per day. Their testing’s carried out between 8:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., six days a week.

“On any given day, we can have five or six kids coming in,” she said. “The grad students end up being flexible. They basically live in the lab.”

A large whiteboard detailing the day’s schedule said the team’s first patient of the day—eight-month old Brynn Evans—is expected at 9 a.m., along with her mother, Christa Moran. The board also lists the colour, make and model of Moran’s car, so Hallinan could easily pick it out when she went outside to greet them. Bad weather delayed Brynn and her mother’s arrival, leaving Hallinan waiting in the cold for 20 minutes.

When they arrive, Hallinan leads them to the lab, where they’re greeted by Kuhlmeier and Lee. Moran and her daughter have been to the lab once before, so they didn’t need much explanation. Instead, Moran sat on a waiting room couch, allowing Brynn to acclimatize to her new surroundings. The bright colours seemed to have their desired effect, as she seemed happy and at ease.

The actual cognitive development testing takes place in a 10-by-15-foot side room off the waiting room. This tiny sub-room is furnished sparsely: one table, two chairs, three cameras and a bucket of toys under the table.

Hallinan took Moran and Brynn into the room, while Kuhlmeier and Lee entered a distinctly different room.

With four computers and monitors, a television and a DVD/VHS recorder, the room looked like a security centre at a mall or casino.

It’s from this control room that they observe the testing, recording it directly onto a hard drive so they have objective evidence they can use to catalogue the test results. The group takes many security precautions with their recorded data, including identifying babies by only subject number and keeping the names in a separate location.

“There’s a specific sensitivity you have to have when it’s children,” Kuhlmeier said. “Everything has to go through the Queen’s Ethics Board.”

Queen’s Ethics Board is responsible for ensuring her lab takes appropriate precautions, which involves storing patient data separately from patients’ names and making sure all data is kept in a secure location—the locked control centre, which, like the rest of the lab, is behind an outer key-carded door. The lab also has to be baby-proof, without furniture with sharp edges and guards on all electrical outlets so the babies can’t stick their fingers into the socket.

Given their needs for such diverse materials as children’s toys, furnishings and high-tech equipment, the group buys supplies from a variety of sources, Kuhlmeier said.

“We have everything from the dollar store to IKEA to Apple computers in this lab alone.”

The group has several projects going right now. Brynn came in to participate in one studying infant goal perception.

In the test room, Hallinan showed Brynn two toys on a tray, picked up one herself, put it back down and then slid the tray over to Brynn. The group then recorded which object Brynn touched first, noting if it was the one Hallinan handled.

Kuhlmeier explained that it’s been shown children associate this type of action with intentionality. Hallinan’s research is trying to determine at what stage of development this association kicks in.

“We’re very interested in how infants interpret goals,” Kuhlmeier said. “Infants will often imitate acts they see as intentional. … This is a new study for us, so we’re not one hundred per cent sure what’s going to happen.”

There are several controls on the experiment to prevent other factors from seeping in: Hallinan frequently changed the hand she used to handle an object and switched the same objects to different sides to see if Brynn was only interested in a certain side. Hallinan also frequently changed the toys she used to try to determine how much of Brynn’s interest was related to the particular toy and how much could be due to the perception of intention.

Only the toy Brynn touched first is recorded—not length of touch or how she touched it—as the first touch is the most easily quantifiable data that can be obtained from the experiment. Hallinan clapped after each round of the experiment to try to prevent the desire for praise from interfering with the research.

“We give praise no matter what,” Kuhlmeier said.

As Brynn carried out her toy selections, choosing between objects such as cars, cows and bumblebees, her actions were analyzed by Kuhlmeier and Lee, watching the camera feed in the control centre. Only one of the two cameras normally used in this experiment was working, so they couldn’t see which toy Hallinan touched. They will have to get that data from her later to be able to analyze the results of the day’s experiment.

Kuhlmeier said Brynn seemed to be more influenced by direction than which toy Hallinan touched.

“She’s got a hand bias,” she said. “She’s going to the right.”

Lee said Brynn was an impressively compliant subject.

“She’s the first baby I’ve seen who doesn’t put everything in her mouth.”

She added that Brynn, like most of their other subjects, was particularly drawn to a certain toy most of the time.

“They’re like, oh cool, red button, I want that one,” she said.

Brynn was having a great time playing with the various toys, frequently banging the table in pleasure while awaiting the next proffered pair of amusements and looking a little disappointed when the 15-minute testing process ended.

Afterwards, Brynn was congratulated for her work and received a certificate of “Master’s of Infant Lab Work” for her efforts, which was given to Moran for safekeeping. First-time visitors receive a “Bachelors,” and many wind up working their way into the post-doctoral levels. Kuhlmeier said the majority of their subjects decide to keep coming back and credited curiosity with attracting people in the first place.

“I think the parents do it because it’s an interesting thing to learn about,” she said. “It’s not like they’re making money off of it, they’re voluntary.”

Moran said she learned about the group through a program on CBC Radio, and decided to enrol her daughter because of her own background working with children and her desire to see research done that can benefit other kids.

“I did therapy for a lot of years, so I’m always interested to help,” she said. “I think learning more about children’s development and brain development can help with disabilities like autism.”

In fact, Kuhlmeier said her lab frequently works with the four other developmental labs in the psychology department, including Elizabeth Kelley’s Autism Spectrum Disorder lab. “Because we have these common interests, we share information back and forth,” she said. “We don’t work in a vacuum.”

Kuhlmeier said her lab works especially closely with Kelley’s, given the similar nature of their research.

“[Kelley] studies a lot of these questions [of how the brain develops] as well within autism,” she said. “Seeing what the deficiencies can be does help with typical development: they impact each other.”

Her group is in constant need of new volunteer test subjects, as they have multiple studies going on at once and each one requires about 60 different infants to be tested, she said.

Kuhlmeier said the group recruits potential subjects through booths at local festivals such as the Sky’s The Limit Festival and the Leisure Fair, as well as distributing signs and pamphlets around town.

“We’re constantly recruiting. …Our budget pressures prevent us from doing too much,” she said.

Observing tests is only a small part of Kuhlmeier’s day. Usually she leaves that end of the work to the lab manager and students. There are three graduate students, seven undergraduate volunteers, three honours thesis students and one directed lab student working with the Infant Cognition Group.

Kuhlmeier usually puts in 60 to 80 hours of work each week, dividing time between her work for the lab, her duties as the co-ordinator for the psychology department’s developmental labs and her teaching work. She said her days form an often hard-to-plan mix between administrative work, writing research papers and proposals, meetings with students, researchers and colleagues, teaching classes, reading and answering the approximately 45 e-mails she receives every day and reading other publications.

“Days are whirlwind,” she said. “Oftentimes, you have one thing planned and something comes in out of the blue. You have to just roll with it. You definitely don’t do the same thing every day.”

The flood of e-mails she receives never really abates, and increases when she’s teaching undergraduate courses. Kuhlmeier said it feels overwhelming at times.

“It’s been a week since I responded to this student here,” she said. “I feel horrible, but auggh!”

Kuhlmeier spent most of Wednesday afternoon in meetings, answering e-mail inquiries and working on a grant application to the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

She said applying for grants is one of the most important parts of her job. “It is what funds research. You can’t really do research without it.”

In their Wednesday night lab meetings, the group goes through lab business, such as discussing equipment issues. After that, one student will present on their own research or the group will discuss recent literature in their field. Kuhlmeier always orders food for the group and on Wednesday, they were going to get sushi.

Kuhlmeier said the most important thing for her is making sure the group’s research is relevant, useful and applicable.

“Otherwise, it just looks like we’re playing weird games with babies.”

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