Humanoids aren’t only the center for research regarding their mechanical functionality; they are now in the limelight for psychological research as well.
A team at the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, led by Professor Linda Smith, is using humanoid robots designed to mimic infant behaviour (epigenetic robots), to research how infants learn. Their research has revealed that body posture plays a vital role in infants’ initial learning of the world.
“Association” is a major tool that the human brain uses to remember things. It uses information that it already has and connects new information with it to establish neural links to learn and remember.
This research discovered that for infants, association includes physical cues: names and positions of objects as well as their body posture.
“This study shows that the body plays a role in early object name learning, and how toddlers use the body’s position in space to connect ideas,” says Smith. “The creation of a robot model for infant learning has far-reaching implications for how the brains of young people work.”
During the experiment, the robot was shown two different objects on its left and right. Repeating the process several times, an association between the object, its name and the robot’s posture was induced. The robot was later made to take the same posture it had used during the learning exercise and names to the objects were called out. In this setting, the robot turned and reached for the objects 20 times, which proved it had successfully associated their names. But when the robot’s posture was changed and the same exercise was repeated, it did not recognize the objects. The experiment was later repeated with human infants aged 12 to 18 months and similar results were obtained.
Although studies exist that link location of an object with the ability to remember it, this study is the first of its kind that goes further to include and point towards the role of body posture in learning and memorizing.
“These experiments may provide a new way to investigate the way cognition is connected to the body, as well as new evidence that mental entities, such as thoughts, words and representations of objects, which seem to have no spatial or bodily components, first take shape through spatial relationship of the body within the surrounding world,” Smith said in the press release.
Liz Rosdeitcher, writer for the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, says, “The way our physical processes of development, such as sitting up, standing or holding your head up, have an effect on how we think is an interesting discovery”, indicating that the study is a significant break through in human behaviour.
Smith now plans to determine if such an association between posture and learning applies to adults as well. She is positive that this research can add to what we know about cognitive and developmental disorders and help devise much needed therapeutic techniques.
Epigenetic robots have become a useful tool for psychological research as they facilitate a controlled environment in which certain factors can be standardized to focus the research on a particular aspect. Different studies are therefore inclined to employ these and later replicate the results on humans to verify their authenticity.