How the colourful world of ‘baby scientists’ inspired a sold-out Brighton Festival show

Baby Lab research assistant Alice Skelton (above) uses an eye-tracking device to observe how baby Georgios responds to visual stimuli.

Baby Georgios in the Lab with his mother Angie.

The University of Sussex Baby Lab has helped theatre company Flying Eye to create a magical Brighton Festival show for babies and toddlers, running today and tomorrow (Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 May).

GLOW’ will feature glowing globes, a dancer in the sky, live music and a host of experiences for the infants’ senses. 

We spoke with Professor Anna Franklin from the Baby Lab, who advised Flying Eye on infant vision, colour perception, and what babies find most stimulating.

What have you found out so far in the Baby Lab?

The Rainbow Project, which is investigating how babies see colours, is still ongoing but we’ve just analysed the data from the first phase.

So far, we’ve found that babies can categorise colours and our analysis of recent data shows that they use the basic channels of colour vision to divide up the colour spectrum. So it suggests that when we group colours into categories such as green and blue that there is some kind of biological underpinning for how we do that; it’s not just random. And that’s been debated for a long time. People have argued that colour categories are random because there are different terms in different languages but it turns out that babies actually use the biology of their colour vision to do it, which provides some constraint on how languages can then divide up colours into different terms.

Babies have got some colour vision when they are born but it’s limited. It develops quite rapidly over the first couple of months of life and they’re trichromatic by the time they’re three months old, so three types of photo receptors are functioning.  We work with babies at four months old upwards, once we are sure that they have got colour vision.

Colour perception gets a lot better as the baby develops. It actually gets better up until adolescence and then it actually starts to get worse. In toddlers we are looking at how they learn the words for colour but also how they keep colours constant in their mind when the lighting changes – something called colour constancy, which means that if you look at a banana under any colour light, you still see it and think of it as yellow. It’s basically because our brain factors out the illuminant so it can keep the surfaces constant so we’ve got a more constant world. We’re looking at that in toddlers and seeing how it develops.

Why is it important to understand these things?

It’s important for several reasons. First of all, from a scientific viewpoint, it’s important to know how the brain develops and how the brain learns to process the information in the world around it. And colour is a good way of testing questions around that - it’s a good testing ground for looking at the effect of environment on brain development and processing of stimuli. So, basic, fundamental questions about our cognition can be addressed using colour.

And there are practical implications. For example, we’ve done consultancies with toy companies on products related to infants, talking about what infants can see and what they prefer to look at and what will grab their attention.

Also, potentially there are implications down the line for how you educate children and what kinds of educational materials they respond well to. For example, if you’ve got colour vision deficiency, how would that impact on your learning in the classroom and your use of coloured education materials?

As a group, we’re most interested in the scientific questions - the goal of understanding the human brain and how we learn. But there is also practical, commercial application as well.

A huge guiding principle is that to understand how adults do something, or how the adult brain works, you need to understand how that process develops. So, for example, if you want to understand memory, then, by researching how memory develops, you can understand a lot about it in its adult form. And so the same goes with vision and with colour. Seeing things develop and seeing that development in action, you can actually understand the mechanisms much more.

How do you find your baby subjects?

We have a research assistant in the lab, Gemma, who advertises the Baby Lab studies on Facebook, and Alice keeps Baby Lab followers updated about our latest studies on Twitter. And then basically anywhere where there’s a baby in Brighton or Lewes or Eastbourne we try to get our postcards, which advertise what we’re about.  A lot of people we get coming in have been told about the Baby Lab by friends who have also brought their babies in. It’s something fun that parents can do, something interesting, and they learn something about their baby in doing it.

Has anything you’ve found particularly surprised you (eg gender differences)?

We’ve not found any gender differences before. There’s some evidence in the literature that male babies might be less good at one of the subsystems of colour vision; the red/green one. But we’ve not found any evidence of that ourselves.

The most surprising thing to me has been that infants tend to look longer at the colours that adults like. You tend to think of colour preference as being something fairly idiosyncratic – it’s just a personal choice – but actually the fact that adults’ colour preferences map on to infants looking suggests that there’s some kind of early origins of something about those colours that make us like them but also make infants look longer.

Colour is an interesting stimulus because it’s always there in everything that we look at and it can have quite subtle effects on us and our behaviour, how we process things and our emotional response. But we’re rarely really aware of that happening – it’s almost like an invisible vapour or something that you don’t really know is there but it does affect you. So it’s quite interesting from that viewpoint.

How did the Brighton Festival show come about?

Sachi and Kristina, who are the directors, just contacted me; they found the Baby Lab on the web. They wanted a play that was going to resonate with babies and that would fit with babies’ abilities in understanding and seeing. They came to the lab and we showed them some babies taking part in our research. We talked about infant vision and cognition, gave them some things to read and we just had ongoing discussion really about that so they could feed it into their play.

It was really interesting to see how science could be drawn upon in art. They’re such creative women and it was really interesting to see how they took the scientific findings and used them. I went to a couple of the shows where they were developing the different components of the play - to see how you get from the scientific work to putting it in action was really interesting for me.

Was the process quite different to how you approach things as a researcher?

Absolutely, yes. There is definitely creativity in research but their creativity has got a different goal.

I was surprised when I watched the test show how engaged babies were and how much enjoyment they got from it and also how it led to this bond between the baby and the parent. It seemed quite a rich experience for the parent to have their baby engage with something so much. When we were having conversations talking about the science and talking about their ideas, I didn’t realise that it was all going to knit together so effectively.

There’s certainly a need for more things that are directed towards infants. The GLOW show sold out on the first day that it was released and that really shows that we should be producing more things for babies. Especially because early experience is really important for shaping visual development and cognitive development, so we want to give young minds a rich experience.

Find out more about the Sussex Baby Lab and how babies can take part in Baby Lab research.


By: James Hakner
Further information: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/babylab/
Last updated: Wednesday, 6 May 2015

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