Skip to main content

Babies are mystifying!

From their first laugh during peak-a-boo, to the first word they say, it is clear that they are both clever and clueless. While you try to decipher their coos and cries, we bet that you have asked “Are you hungry? Tired? Do you need a diaper change?” or just a more general question, “What is going on inside your head?” This question is exactly what the Scaffolding of Cognition Team at Stanford wants to answer.

We use fMRI to study the infant mind

Functional Magnetic Resonance imaging (fMRI) is a variant of MRI that has been safely used for decades to study brains of all sizes, from newborns to adults.

Using fMRI, we can measure what parts of an infant’s brain is activated when they watch fun visual displays — such as cartoons, shapes, or faces. We embed experiments in these attention-grabbing displays so that we can ask questions about how infants see, learn, and remember.

What questions do we ask?

If you would like to know more about the kinds of questions we ask, click on the pictures below. Also, please read our FAQ, where you can learn more about fMRI and what it is like to participate in our study.


Why do infants learn fast but remember poorly?

We learn an incredible amount of information as infants, like how to speak, how to move our body, and who is in our social circle. Even as toddlers, we are able to remember and recall events that happened from weeks or months prior. Yet, none of us remember anything from early infancy. Until about 4 years of age, we are unable to store memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. This puzzle drives a big question we want to answer: what capacities do infants have for learning and remembering? One of the key brain regions for memory in adults is the hippocampus, and this matures a lot as we grow up. We found that despite this massive growth, the hippocampus is involved in learning in infants as young as 3 months. This research is important but just emphasizes the mystery we started with. Our future work hopes to understand what is different about the memories infants form which explains why they are temporary.


How do infants see?

Our visual system is amazing: in a split-second you can recognize loved ones’ faces, estimate where a ball is and where it is going, or read words off a page. We in the Scaffolding of Cognition Team want to know what the world looks like to an infant. Our approach to understand this big question is to focus on answering the following: What is vision like for neonates, and what changes over the next couple of years? Does what we learn influence what we see? Is infant vision able to process information at the same speed as adult vision? So far, we have found that there are ways that the infant visual system is similar to adults and ways in which it is different! For instance, we found that the visual system of infants as young as 5 months is organized into different areas with different functions, just like adults. However, we have also seen that the way infants — even those as old as 24 months — process movies differs from adults. Specifically, they see fewer things happening in a movie than we as adults do. As our research moves forward, we are hopeful that we will be able to ‘see’ the world through an infant’s eyes!


How do infants exert control?

Before babies explore the world by walking or crawling, they rely on their attention to learn about their surroundings. They look at things that interest them, pay attention to places where interesting things might happen, and focus longer on unexpected events. But we still don’t know much about how infants control what they attend to. Traditionally, infants are thought of as passive and reactive, but we in the Scaffolding of Cognition team think that infants are extremely capable of actively engaging with the world. We have previously found that infants can pay attention well and use similar brain systems as adults, but not exactly the same. Results showed that the frontal cortex — which is thought to be immature in babies — is actually important for shifting attention. By studying how and when infants exert control, we hope to uncover just how impressive the infant brain is.

Watch the video below to get a walkthrough of being a participant!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is fMRI? And is it safe for my child?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a neuroimaging tool that uses a powerful magnet to measure brain activity. Specifically, it detects the changes in blood oxygenation levels that result from regions of the brain consuming energy.

fMRI is a safe technology — since our bodies are not metallic, magnets do not do any harm to us. Whereas X-rays use harmful ionizing radiation, fMRI is completely safe and can be used repeatedly. Indeed, this technology has been safely used for over two decades, including with children, infants, and fetuses.

Like other safe technologies, we need to take precautions to ensure safety, like how a seat belt is needed to safely use a high chair. You and your child will be screened prior to undergoing an fMRI scan in order to check that you two don’t have any implanted metals (e.g., a pacemaker) or any metal on you (e.g., jewelry) that would be affected by the magnet. Also, the fMRI machine makes a lot of noise when it is turned on, so we will provide you and your child with hearing protection.

Before you and your child participate, we will host a 1-on-1 orientation session, which will give us the opportunity to explain more about fMRI, what it is you will do, and what you can expect. You will also have a chance to ask our research team any questions you have.

What will participation in the study look like?

Participation includes an orientation session (~1 hour) where you’ll have the chance to learn more about what the study entails and the procedures that will be used on the day of your child’s scan. You’ll have the opportunity to ask any and all questions you may have about the study.

On the day of your scan, you and your child will be screened again and we will explain what the rest of the session will look like. When you and your child are ready, you will go into the fMRI room with the research team. There we will put hearing protection on your child and then put them in the scanner. While in the scanner your child will be lying down and watching fun movies or colorful shapes. While your child watches the screen, we will be capturing images of their brain activity as well as recording their eye movements.

You will be playing a crucial role in helping researchers understand your baby’s needs throughout the study. You will be standing near your baby in the fMRI scanner and will be able to communicate with your child. A researcher will stay with you inside the fMRI room and will be able to answer any questions you have.

This visit may last up to 2 hours. The time in the scanner will take up to 1 hour, and the remaining time will be spent setting up you and your child for the scanner, as well as for taking breaks when your child needs it.

Will we be compensated?

Yes, we understand participating in our study may take time away from your normal routine. We appreciate your effort and time to help our researchers gain more insight into child cognition. You will be given $25 per hour for your time, and your travel to the scan will be reimbursed. Your child will receive a gift too. Finally, if we are able to take a good enough picture of your child’s brain then we will 3D print it and give it to you to keep.

I am interested in participating in research that doesn’t involve fMRI, how can I get involved?

We have another study looking at your baby’s behavior that you can join at the convenience of your own home. In this study, we show your baby fun videos while we measure where they are looking. All you will need is a computer with a webcam so that we can track their eye movements. If you’re interested, click here to sign up!

If you have additional questions, please email the SOC Team.

Learn more about how to get involved