This is not a pipe.

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This famous painting by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte is called “The Treachery of Images”. The words read “This is not a pipe”.

But it IS a pipe…

At first glance, this painting is confusing. Because… well it IS a pipe. However, a smug artist type with his glasses perched on the edge of his nose will rightly respond “no my dear, it is simply a painting of a pipe”. However, obnoxious it might seem, this is exactly the point of this artwork. This image is is not a pipe in the same way a painting of a fire will not keep you warm or a photo of your face is not ‘you’. This picture is not a pipe. It is not even a painting of a pipe. It is a digital rendering of a famous painting a Belgian man painted more than 90 years ago.

As adults, we often conflate representations of things with the thing itself. Children, however do not. This is in large part do to the fact that they are still learning the relationship between reality and its representation. Understanding what ‘representation’ is, and further understanding how we represent representations is what philosophers and psychologists call “metarepresentation”.

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Thinking about thinking

Metarepresentation describes the fact that when we look at a representation of something (i.e., a drawing or painting) we also represent the thing itself in our mind. As such, metarepresentation also gives us the capacity to understand other’s thoughts.

Metarepresentation also affords us the ability to think about thinking and therefore generate new knowledge or meaning by representing thoughts or concepts that are not noticed on a day-to-day basis. Algebra, sculpture, empathy, sarcasm and puns all rely on our human ability of metarepresentation.

Children’s symbolic reasoning

Piaget studied the development of children’s symbolic reasoning and determined that we go through two distinct phases in cognitive development in order to achieve adult-like metarepresentation. Between the ages of 2 and 4, children first understand the relationship between symbols and meaning, hence language begins to flourish during these years.

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Next, sometime before 4 and 8 years, children master the ability to picture, remember, understand, and replicate objects in their minds that are not immediately in front of them. In other words, children can create mental images of objects and store them in their minds for later use.

The power of imagination makes us infinite

These  cognitive abilities are helpful as young children move through the world learning about and experiencing new things, places and people. This ability allows them to talk about their cousin who lives across the country, discuss or draw places they’ve visited, as well as create new scenes and creatures from their imagination. As they grow this ability becomes more complex and refined.

The imagination is at the core of so many of humankind’s most magnificent achievements. These achievements would be impossible without our unique ability to think about thinking. However, in the words of Maria Montesorri “Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”

Why is baby talk is good for babies?

Even before a baby is born, the process of language learning has already begun. Towards the end of of pregnancy, after an infant’s ears have sufficiently developed, the patterns and sounds of their mother and father’s speech are transmitted through Mum’s belly. Though the sounds are muffled and fuzzy, making it difficult to isolate individual sounds, the rhythm and intonation of the language are clear.

Newborn infants are primed to start learning the languages that surround them in daily life, and already show a preference for their parent’s spoken language. This preference directs their attention, allowing babies to learn more about the features and patterns of their parents’ native tongue. Although it may seem odd for infants so young to show a preference, it is merely a matter of the familiar. For example, Italian and Korean speakers emphasise different parts of a word or sentence meaning the rhythym of these two languages are very different. At just one week old, babies can detect these differences and use this information to tell the difference between their own language (i.e., their parents’ language) and an unfamiliar language.

But why babytalk?

What we call “babytalk” or “motherese” is vital to helping babies learn to understand and produce language. Babytalk is typically characterised by increases in pitch and the use of wide, exaggerated intonation changes. Studies have demonstrated that babies prefer to listen to exaggerated “babytalk” over standard adult-like speech. Babies pay more attention when a parent’s speech uses a higher and more varied range of pitch when compared to adult-like speech which uses fewer features of exaggerated pitch. For example, a mother might say the word “baaaaabbbbyyyyy” in an exaggerated or song-like voice, holding her infant’s attention longer than if she spoke in her usual adult voice. Speaking in this way also helps words stand out making it easier for babies to differentiate and pick out smaller chunks or groupings of language. These distinctive features of baby talk help babies “tune in” and help make understanding what Mum is saying to them a much easier task.

Slow it down now…

Baby talk tends to involve speaking more slowly and putting key words at the end of a spoken phrase. For example, “Where is the kitty?” will help babies understand and learn the word ‘kitty’ more easily than “The kitty is hiding in the bushes”. For this reason producing words individually, and separating sentence fragments with large pauses makes language learning an easier task for babies. Research shows that the first words infants produce are often those that are accompanied by large pauses either side, or are spoken in isolation. Babies hear isolated words such as “bye-bye” and “mummy” very frequently, and these are often some of the earliest words that they learn to produce.

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When a word is produced separately from run-on speech, an infant does not have to separate it from the stream of sounds that surround it, making it easier to identify where a particular word begins and ends. Additionally, slowing down one’s speech has been shown to help infants isolate individual words and sounds as these words are often produced more clearly than in faster speech. Another key factor is that, as they are still learning, infants process language much more slowly than adults and slower speech allows them more time to make sense of what they are hearing.

Why am I always repeating myself?

Repeating words is also beneficial in infants’ early word learning. Infants’ first words are often those which are produced most frequently in caregiver speech. Words such as “mummy,” “daddy”, “uh-oh” and “bye-bye” are among the most common first words of English speaking babies. On top of this, ‘reduplicated’ words – or words that involve repetition such as “woof woof” or “quack quack” – are typical of baby talk, and are shown to have an advantage for early word learning. Newborn infants show stronger brain activation when they hear reduplicated words, indicating this may provide an advantage for these words in human language processing. Also, other research shows that slightly older infants tend to learn reduplicated words more easily than non-reduplicated words.

Speak to me baby!

Babytalk is not just a cute way to engage with babies on a social level – it has huge implications for helping babies learn how to communicate with those around them. While babytalk is not essential for language learning, the use of modulated pitch, repetition and slower speech all allow infants to process the patterns in their language faster and more easily. Speaking in such an exaggerated style might sometimes feel strange but the the science shows that you are helping provide the optimum input  for helping your baby learn how to speak.

New Orleans: ICIS 2016

This year the 20th International Congress on Infant Studies (ICIS) was held in the heart of downtown New Orleans.

The 2016 ICIS meeting was organized around four themes: Learning, Culture and Context, Technology & Emotion and I had amazing time talking with researchers from around the world about all things Infant Research.


I loved the idea of the Lunch with Leaders session where I got to meet and speak with Susan Graham about life in academia and balancing work and family.  I had the chance to meet with Elizabeth Simpson and chat about our differing view on neonatal imitation and share a poster session (we presented side by side) with Holly Rayson who presented research into mirror neurons.

As always, I really enjoyed walking around the poster sessions. I had a particularly special time speaking with Gabrielle Weidemann, Karen Mulak, Karen Mattock and Nicole Traynor from the Baby Lab at Western Sydney University about language development in infancy and also with Jenny Richmond and Heidi Chng from UNSW about the development of  memory and emotion during infancy as well as mothers physiological measures of affect attunement.

I was grateful to hear presentations by Elizabeth Meins on Mind-Mindedness and how it it useful in helping mothers with psychological illnesses better relate to their infants and also by Naiqi G Xiao on implicit racial biases in infancy.

There was so much great research at #ICIS2016 and my only disappointment is that I didn’t have time to hear all of it! I had a brilliant time talking research by day and exploring New Orleans and listening to jazz by night. Can’t wait for the next one!

Developing Mind Series


The CCD Developing Mind Series of workshops looks at major research findings and evidence-based strategies to understand cognitive development in early childhood.  The workshop provides an opportunity for researchers from many different disciplines to present research that relates to the developing mind.

The other speakers were:

I am grateful to have been able to share my work with such esteemed researchers and hear their views, ideas and perspectives on the nature of human development.