Tag Archives: Babylab

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading What’s this for? The teleological instinct

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: hungariangirl.com: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

The great Smurf Experiment

I am at the gorgeously magnificent Széchenyi baths with Ágnes Kovács, one of the senior researchers of the CDC group at the CEU. I have long admired Ági’s work and one experiment conducted with Ernő Téglás and Ansgar Endress, has completely changed how we think about the development of Theory of Mind. 

We are sitting at the edge of the pool marked 36ºC. Silky water is all around us and we can comfortably settle at the edge.

UF: Agi, how did you come to embark on your amazing experiment that showed that 7-months old infants can track another person’s false belief? Most researchers up until then were convinced that Theory of Mind was testable only from age four onwards. Continue reading The great Smurf Experiment

agnes melinda kovacs

AK: It started in a conversation I had on a train in Trieste. I did my PhD there in Jacques Mehler’s lab, on bilingualism and its effects on cognitive development. Amongst the effects I considered were Theory of Mind (ToM) and Executive functions (EF).

It turned out that these two factors had been confounded in the well known Sally-Anne task that was typically used to test ToM. I wanted a pure test of ToM. It occurred to me that I actually wanted a ToM test for babies, and that it simply had be a non-verbal version of the Sally-Ann task.

UF: Wow that was ambitious! So how did you get this idea and go about designing such a test?

AK: I didn’t know it was ambitious, – I only knew that there was a risk  of not finding anything. So I only pursued the project on the side. Jacques Mehler very kindly allowed me to do this – even though he himself was very skeptical about it. In his lab I had learned that by merely observing babies’ looking behavior you can get an idea about what they expect. So it should be possible to look for evidence of whether or not they have an implicit form of ToM.

UF: If babies have expectations, does this mean that they have mental representations –  images perhaps of what might be there in the outside world? And sometimes this image agrees with what is out there, and sometimes it doesn’t?

AK: You could say that. We knew already from earlier studies that infants can represent the continued presence of an object even when the object was hidden behind a screen. When the screen was lifted, the infants still expected the object to be there.

UF: So, they did a double take when the object wasn’t there.

AK:  These and other findings suggested that young infants can also represent another agent’s goal, and this made me think that it might be possible to study not just infants’  representation of objects, whether they are present or absent….but beyond this, whether infants represent not just their own beliefs about objects, but the belief of another person.

UF: Why did you test 7months olds?

AK: I thought even 6 months olds might do this, since even at this age they understand goals.  But at the time, the babies coming to the lab to be tested were 7 months old.

To go on exploring the baths we are moving to a slightly warmer and larger pool, surrounded by Roman style marble columns.

UF: You designed the famous Smurf task. Can you briefly describe what your aim was with this task?

AK: We wanted to we find out whether human beings would spontaneously track another agent’s belief about a location of an object – even when the agent and his beliefs are completely irrelevant for the task. So, basically, we transformed an object detection task into an implicit ToM task.

UF: The other agent was a Smurf! The thrilling question was whether observers, adults or babies, were influenced by the Smurf’s belief. So when he had a false belief, namely that an object was still there when it had actually been removed, then the observer might be systematically affected by this. But how did you measure the effect on the observer?

With adults we used a simple visual detection paradigm. They have to detect the presence of a ball and press a button as quickly as possible when it was present. We knew already that our expectations and knowledge modulate behavior. For instance, imagine a person arriving to a crowded airport and spotting her best friend. She will be much faster in noticing her friend if she knew in advance that the friend was waiting for her, as opposed to the situation when she did not know that the friend was coming.

In our baseline task participants watch short video and have to detect the presence of a ball behind a screen when the screen falls. We find that they are faster in detecting the ball when they have previously seen the ball rolling behind the screen, and expect it to be there, as compared to the situation when they have seen the ball rolling out of the scene, and thus don’t expect to find the ball.

In our critical condition we vary the belief of the Smurf and this is how we did it: if the Smurf walks out of the scene before the ball rolls away, he would “think” that the ball is still behind the screen.

UF: Ingenious! So you expect participants not only to be faster in detecting the presence of the ball when they themselves believed the ball to be behind the screen, but also when the Smurf believed this.

Baby watching Smurf

AK: And this was the result. It suggested that just watching animations could lead participants to automatically compute the Smurf’s (false) beliefs, even though the Smurf’s belief was entirely irrelevant to the task they had to perform.


UF:  What was the task in the case of the infants?

AK:  Here we measured looking time. In exactly the same situation as the adults, they looked longer when the Smurf had a false belief.

UF: These findings must have just clicked into place for you. It must have been thrilling to see your ‘high risk’ study work out.

We visit the steam room and are surrounded by thick mist. My glasses completely become clouded and I can only see through a fog. After a refreshing shower we brave the outside. There is an open air hot pool at Szechenyi baths. An amazing sight greeted as: steam rising against a purple evening sky, lights glinting and water pouring from the spouts of statues at the edges of the pool. We braved a short walk through the cold air and then gratefully slipped into the delightful warmth of the water. 

AK: Well, arriving to the final design took many hours of discussions with Erno and Ansgar to make sure we control for various factors to rule out other interpretations. Another difficulty was that we wanted to use the same movies with adults and young infants, thus movies had to be simple (1 location, 1 object, 1 agent).

UF: Can you tell me something about your collaborators, Erno Teglas and Ansgar Endress?

AK: It was Ansgar I had the conversation with in the train when it all started. He suggested that we test the paradigm first with adults.  Here we used Reaction Times, not eye gaze. This was a really good idea. Ernö was indispensable. First he was my boyfriend, and we previously had had long discussions on how to study ToM in infants; second he was doing a PhD where he had gained the necessary experience with studying looking behaviour in infants.

UF:  Can you briefly summarise the results?

The results were just as I had expected. With the adults and then also with the babies, when we used eye gaze as a response. We have found that adults and infants spontaneously tracked an agent’s belief about a location of an object, even when the agent and his beliefs were completely irrelevant for their task.

UF: I believe it took some time before you published the paper?

AK: I had to finish my PhD first. We did present the results at a conference and it was known what we were trying to do – and there were many skeptics.  So we did not rush to get into print. We wanted to do every thing properly and be sure about our results…

The nice thing was that Jacques Mehler encouraged us to submit the paper to Science, and just as the three of us, only students, without him as a senior author. This is actually quite rare, and it had the additional benefit, that on the strength of this publication I could apply for a European grant.

After more showers, and a short stay in a sauna, Agi and I get ready to leave. But first, we share a refreshingly cold Stella Artois overlooking the outdoor pool. The evening visitors are now arriving.

UF: Thank you for telling me the story behind the Smurf experiment. I vaguely remember when I saw this study, when it was published in Science in 2010 it made me jump for joy. It was not only because I liked the results – it was the beautiful design that made it possible to compare children less than 1 year old with adults. Getting the same results for both groups really put a big question mark about what we call ‘development’ of Theory of Mind. New questions had to be asked. For example: Is the ability to attribute mental states part of our brain’s hard ware?

AK: Well, this is a highly interesting question! Together with my students and collaborators we are currently performing studies addressing this question as well.


Post-script 30th April 2014:

“Why on earth was it a Smurf?”   Because they are cute, of course,  but here is Agnes:

“The practical reason was that we had the software to animate a Smurf, making him roll the ball, turn around, move along, and so on. Also we knew from other experiments that babies really love animated shapes.  They don’t need to watch real people doing things to pay attention; simple shapes with faces and self initiated movements are just as good, if not better. Deep down there was perhaps also another reason: For our generation, and certainly for Ernö, Ansgar and myself,  Smurfs are incredibly bound up with happy childhood memories.”



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.

Continue reading The ten thousand babies of the Swanhouse

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.