How babies are cleverer than we think... and know just how to help adults out of a tight spot

Gurgling and giggling are their specialities.

But behind the coos and goo-goo-goos, babies are busy setting the world to rights.

They can apparently communicate remarkably complex thoughts at the tender age of one.

Baby, laughing, wearing only a nappy.   from adv.jpg

At the tender age of one, babies are dab hands at understanding adults' thoughts

In an experiment that has echoes of the Bruce Willis film Look Who's Talking, scientists have shown that one-year-old boys and girls are dab hands at understanding adults' thoughts - not to mention helping them out of a tight spot.

In a study, the infants were able to work out if the scientists needed help in finding objects that had fallen on the floor. Then, if necessary, they made sure they got help to track them down.

In other words, well before babies are able to talk, they can work out what other people know - and whether they need any additional information.

The finding contradicts other studies which have suggested that the ability to understand what others know and do not know develops along with speech, around the second year of life.


The researchers, from Germany's Max Planck Institute, said: 'These results contradict classic views of infant communication.

'Infants' early pointing at 12 months is in fact already premised on an understanding of others' knowledge and ignorance, along with a pro-social motive to help others by providing needed information.' In the experiment, a series of one-year-olds sat on their mother's or father's lap across a table from a researcher.

The researcher then showed them an object, such as a pair of scissors, a holepuncher or a stapler, and then placed it so it would slide on to the floor.

In some cases, the scientist watched it fall, in other cases they turned the other way.

They then looked puzzled and asked the baby where the object had gone.

When the researcher had seen the object fall, the baby did not tend to help them find it.

It is thought they had registered the fact that the researcher didn't need to be pointed in the right direction.

But when the adult had pretended not to have seen the object fall, the baby usually tried to indicate-its whereabouts, the journal Cognition reports.

The scientists said: 'Helping by informing inextricably involves both an understanding of others' goals and an understanding of others' ignorance.

'Once the recipient's goal is understood, helping can occur in the form of various means but only if one understands a person's ignorance too can informing become a relevant means for helping.

'Our study demonstrates in pre-linguistic infants the presence of complex cognitive communicative processes previously attributed only to older children aged two or three.'

In the 1993 romantic comedy Look Who's Talking, Bruce Willis provides the voice of a newborn baby who knows far more than his parents give him credit for.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now