The ten thousand babies of the Swanhouse

HattyuhazWe are spending several months at the Cognitive Development Centre at the Central European University Budapest. It is currently housed in the extraordinary postmodern Hattyuhaz.  The name derives from the street it is in, Swanstreet.

We are here to mingle with an incredibly talented group of cognitive psychologists, all interested in social interaction. Chris and I are planning to interview them to find out about their favourite experiments and about what they expect of the field in the future.

On one floor of this building is the Babylab, where over the last few years thousands of infants, mostly between the ages of two and 18 months, are participating in an incredibly productive programme of many experiments conducted in parallel by about a dozen students under the supervision of senior researchers. The questions addressed are very fundamental: how do babies understand social agents? How exactly is their attention drawn towards relevant social signals?

There are four different colour coded labs, all soundproofed, with video screens and cameras. Computers record the babies’ eye gaze or the electrical activity in their brain, using EEG and NIRS. A lab coordinator and lab manager recruit and receive the participants and make them feel at ease in the friendly toy strewn waiting area.

It all looks deceptively easy. The infrastructure provides the smooth running and a continuous supply of babies. The babies and their mothers are clearly interested in the colourful experimental displays. The computer programmes collect the data, the conscientious students analyse them, and so on. But, this is not a factory. For each experiment to come to fruition, it takes months and years to refine the hypotheses, and to interpret the results. Actually, it takes about 3 years for a paper to be published in a scientific journal and often reports a whole bunch of experiments that follow logically from each other. Such a paper is always the results of a cooperation between several scientists and their students.