Dr. Renee Baillargeon and the Building Blocks of Science

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Dr. Renee Baillargeon has a beautiful vision of science to which she ascribes:

She is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology and a faculty member of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Baillargeon introduces herself:

Dr. Baillargeon provides descriptions that are  rich and harmonious. Her path to psychology she sees as quite typical, but there are some important lessons therein  and her words clearly establish her interest in thought processes and psychological mechanisms. I am happy to get out of the way and rely on her reflections to show you how she found cognitive  development as an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal.

She describes finding her major and the eventual path to her undergrad thesis here:

Don’t you just  love her descriptions?

Okay, she  starts with the ideas of her meandering through topics: clinical was interesting, but was it really the right professional avenue? Maybe not. If one is entering the field just to find healing and to understand/intellectualize the problems of one’s life history, then that is probably not the right career. But she finds the work of Noam Chomsky, she takes courses in linguistics and in Psychology with Dr. John MacNamara. Macnamara is an important person for the undergraduate Renee to have worked with. He fully embraced the idea of an inner set of cognitive dispositions and that children were thinking beings. He had broken away from behaviorism and, if one browses his more than 30 years of publications, was intellectually engaged with philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and other relevant disciplines. He was, unquestionably, an important scholar and one who supported the development of many ideas and mentored many students, like Renee. Macnamara died more than 20 years ago in 1996.

I provide all this background on MacNamara as a preface to Dr. Baillargeon’s next story. Macnamara had many attributes, but as she describes, he also did her a major disservice, was unsupportive as a mentor, and revealed a rather awful personal bias.

Here, Dr. Baillargeon describes her process applying to graduate studies and the letter of “support” provided by her undergraduate mentor.

It is things like that end people’s careers and will keep them from gaining access to people, education,  and resources.  In choosing to mentor a student one takes on the onus of providing appropriate support to them. That student will give their time, their efforts, their creativity, and their intellectual abilities and apply them to the aims of the mentor. In exchange the mentor agrees to provide training, resources,  time, and engagement their mentees. The mentor needs to be supportive and to do so with some candor  — encouraging real accomplishments and correcting/aiding areas of need. What Dr. Baillargeon describes suggests a breakdown  of that relationship. A lack of support leading to a kind of poison pill letter that would cause graduate programs to balk at her application. Is she smart or did she merely capitalize on the ideas of the men around her? In raising that spectre of doubt, Dr. Baillargeon’s undergraduate mentor failed her and acted egregiously in a role in which he should have been her advocate.

There’s more to this particular tale, but Dr. Baillargeon persevered successfully in her life, and indeed, at the end of her graduate applications there was hope and good things to come!

Young Renee, entered the Psychology graduate program at University of Pennsylvania to work with Dr. Rochel Gelman!   In addition, soon Dr. Liz Spelke  joined the faculty at U Penn and provided secondary mentorship to Renee. Importantly, with the support of her graduate mentors, Renee was able to think deeply about the abilities and capacities of infants. In doing so, she produced at absolutely essential method for understanding infant cognition: Violation of Expectation (VOE).

In this excerpt, Dr. Baillargeon describes the development of that VOE paradigm in her work with Drs. Gelman and Spelke!

Borrowing on Dr. Baillargeon’s vision of science at the start of this essay, undoubtedly this research was the foundation of her own brick, her own contribution to the structures of science. The VOE method and its implications are absolutely critical in infant cognition. To violate an expectation requires that a baby have an expectation. This can’t just be an automaton or a zombie but, rather, the infant needs to have ideas and a frame of reference for objects and activities. It’s almost odd to say at this point in our understanding of cognitive development, but at that time (late 1970’s- early 1980’s) the idea that babies “think” was very much uncertain. Maybe they were just stimulus-response machines. Maybe they were capable of thoughts and processing information, but not of forming expectations.  Baillargeon and colleagues found a very clever way to non-linguistically measure a baby’s response, and to decipher cognitive states an accessible behavioral response. Simply  put, if you can confuse a baby then she had to have some pretext, some expectation to violate before all that confusion occurred.

How controversial were these new ideas of infant cognition?  In this next excerpt,  Dr. Baillargeon describes the reactions she received:

Using the VOE Dr. Baillargeon had a new approach to studying object permanence and one that indicated infants as young as 6 mos, and in subsequent research 5 mos, and then even younger than that,  were aware of an object’s existence even when they didn’t see it. That object they couldn’t see was expected to alter the trajectory of a moving object moving to and through its position.  It was a great set of findings, and ones that changed our understanding of the origins of human cognition!

Of course, Dr. Baillargeon’s research has continued and she has made many new contributions to the understanding of infant cognition — most recently exploring belief states and false beliefs.

She loved working with young infants, but her more recent work has begun to focus on slightly older children, from ages 2 and older. Why? Cell phones!!! Cell  phones have replaced the need for parents to put birth announcements in the newspapers and so recruiting infants has needed to change. But those stories and many others from Dr. Baillargeon can wait for the book…

Here are some wonderful publications from Dr. Baillargeon:

Baillargeon, R. (1986). Representing the existence and the location of hidden objects: Object permanence in 6-and 8-month-old infantsCognition23(1), 21-41.

Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object permanence in 3½-and 4½-month-old infantsDevelopmental Psychology23(5), 655.

Baillargeon, R. (1987). Young infants’ reasoning about the physical and spatial properties of a hidden objectCognitive Development2(3), 179-200.

Baillargeon, R. (1993). The object concept revisited: New directions in the investigation of infants’ physical knowledgeVisual Perception and Cognition in Infancy23, 265-315.

Baillargeon, R. (1994). How do infants learn about the physical world?Current Directions in Psychological Science3(5), 133-140.

Baillargeon, R. (2004). Infants’ physical world. Current Directions in Psychological Science13(3), 89-94.

Baillargeon, R., & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in young infants: Further evidenceChild Development62(6), 1227-1246.

Baillargeon, R., Spelke, E. S., & Wasserman, S. (1985). Object permanence in five-month-old infantsCognition20(3), 191-208.

Baillargeon, R., Scott, R. M., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief understanding in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences14(3), 110-118.

Onishi, K. H., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-old infants understand false beliefs?. Science308(5719), 255-258.

Sloane, S., Baillargeon, R., & Premack, D. (2012). Do infants have a sense of fairness?Psychological Science23(2), 196-204.

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