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Release: Nov. 12, 2002

UI professor studies attention, distraction in infants

Imagine the mental chaos of not being able to tune out useless information bombarding us every day. This is the world of an infant -- surrounded by multiple toys with a sibling playing nearby while the television picture changes second by second and a dog barks in the neighbors' yard. How do they learn what to ignore and what to pay attention to?

That question is at the heart of ongoing research by Lisa Oakes, an associate professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Her latest study, published in the November/December issue of Child Development, shows that sometime between ages 6 1/2 months and 9 months infants develop skills that help them control their attentional focus so they are not as easily distracted.

She and her research team studied infants playing with toys to determine how quickly they could be distracted by a colorful blinking object on a nearby computer screen. The 6 1/2 month old infants were distracted just as easily regardless of whether they were playing with a familiar toy or an unfamiliar one, but by age 9 months infants took longer to turn toward the distraction while playing with a new toy.

"By 9 months infants had learned to keep their attention on the toy if it was new and they still had a lot to learn from it," Oakes said. "They turned to something new that happened if the toy was relatively old and they had less to learn from it. Apparently, 6 1/2-month-old infants have not yet developed the skills to help them prioritize these kinds of objects and events."

She said one consequence of this developmental change is that older infants are better able to learn about objects even when there are distractions nearby.

"We know that infants as young as 6 1/2 months have some control over their attention," Oakes said, "but the results of our study help to show that internal motivations -- like continuing to attend to something you are actively learning about -- play an increasingly important role in how infants deploy their attention late in the first year of life."

"The message is not that young infants should always be presented with toys or objects one at a time," Oakes cautions. "Developing the ability to focus attention in the face of distraction may depend on experiencing the challenge of trying to focus attention on one thing while there are other distracting objects and events nearby."

Oakes' collaborated on this research with University of Kansas researchers Kathleen N. Kannass and D. Jill Shaddy. The project was funded by the National Institutes of Health.