Creativity begins in the cradle, new research shows

  • Art
  • July 11, 2024

Babies under one year old can combine simple concepts into complex ideas, showing that creativity begins in infancy.

According to new research from the University of Birmingham in the UK and the Central European University in Austria and Hungary, babies are not only capable of creative thinking before they can speak, but this kind of thinking may also be essential for language acquisition.

In the study, published in PNASthe researchers set out to investigate the origins of human creativity and productive thinking to try to understand how people come up with entirely new thoughts and ideas. The basic mechanism for doing this is to take familiar concepts and combine them into new structures, but little is known about how early in life these skills can be used.

The researchers found that babies could learn new words describing small quantities very quickly. That's an impressive feat. What's more, they could spontaneously combine these words with familiar words to fully understand a sentence.

Lead researcher, Dr Barbara Pomiechowska, conducted the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Central European University (CEU). She is now an assistant professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Dr Pomiechowska said: “Human creativity knows no bounds: it has taken us to the moon and enabled us to cure deadly diseases — but despite its importance, we still don't know when and how this impressive ability to combine ideas and invent new things emerges. This research shows that we need to go all the way back to the beginning of language acquisition to solve this puzzle.”

In the study, the researchers worked with a cohort of 60 infants, all around 12 months of age. They started by teaching the babies two new words that describe quantity: “mize,” which means “one,” and “padu,” which means “two.”

The babies were then asked to combine these new number words with different object names, for example to identify 'padu ducks' from a choice of pictures. By learning new words to represent quantities, the researchers were able to test the babies' ability to combine concepts in real time, rather than just remembering combinations of words they already knew from previous experience.

By using eye-tracking technology to monitor where the infants were looking, the researchers were able to show that the infants could successfully combine the two concepts to understand what they were being asked about.

Dr. Agnes Kovacs, of CEU's Department of Cognitive Science and CEU's Cognitive Development Center, added: “For infants, this ability to combine different concepts is likely useful not only for interpreting complex language input, but also for learning about different aspects of the physical and social world. For adults, it's an ability that helps them go beyond what has already been thought about, opening the mind to endless possibilities.”

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