The Development of Relational Processing in Infancy

Project: Research project


Relational ability is central to higher-order learning and reasoning, and is arguably the critical difference between human cognitive capacity and that of other species (Penn et al., 2008). The goal of the proposed research is to trace the development of relational processing over the first year of life. We focus on what is one of the simplest and most basic relations: the same-different relation. The starting point for this proposal is a recent demonstration that 7- and 9-month-old infants can form abstract same-different relations, and apply them to new pairs of objects (Ferry et al., 2015). Further there is continuity in the characteristics of relational learning across development. As in older children, comparing across exemplars facilitates abstracting the common relation and focusing on individual objects disrupts relational processing. This result opens several new avenues for investigation, each of which bears on fundamental questions concerning the origin and evolution of higher-order cognition in humans. The proposed research will identify the scope of infants' ability to detect same-different relations. Certainly, infants do not have the same higher-order relational abilities found in children and adults. A more plausible hypothesis is that there are specific learning conditions that facilitate relational comparison and others that hinder performance. Ferry et al. (2015) demonstrated that under ideal circumstances when the exemplars were spatially aligned, infants could generalize the same-different relation. This provides evidence that the potential for detecting same-different relations may emerge early in life. The next question is how do relational abilities change over development? Pursuing this question requires an examination of younger infants, and infants' performance with a broader range of stimuli to ascertain the extent of the facilitative effect of comparison and detrimental effect of object focus. Another question is: how does language influence relational learning? Work on children and adults shows that language is a powerful mediator in learning and using relations thereby facilitating the analogical processing. By hearing the expression "These are the same" applied to a pair of objects, adults may come to perceive similarities among the objects. Ferry et al. (2015) demonstrates that sensitivity to same and different may emerge before much language experience and then the ability may be enhanced or diminished by subsequent language experience. Mapping out the influence of language labels over the course of early development will reveal information critical to understanding analogical processes in general. In addition, we will examine the role of the ostensive cues on infants' ability to abstract relations. By systematically varying the presence of live actors who manipulate the objects, it will lend insight to whether predicting the goals of others is a critical factor in infants' ability to abstract relations between objects. In a final series of experiments the proposed experiments will investigate the generalizability of these effects by testing a variety of abstract relations.
Effective start/end date8/15/177/31/20


  • National Science Foundation (BCS-1729720)


learning prerequisite