Curiosity, not repetition: New study offers clues on how babies learn to control their movements

Random exploratory behaviour helps infants carry out a sequence of movements

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 27 December 2022
Photo: iStock_

Curiosity and exploratory behaviour drive human infants to learn how to control their body movements, according to a new study.

The spontaneous movement of arms and legs begins in the womb and continues after birth. This random exploratory behaviour helps them carry out a sequence of movements as infants, the study published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated.

“We believe that early spontaneous movements, even with no explicit purpose or reward, have a role in supporting how humans learn to move their own body,” Hoshinori Kanazawa from the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology and one of the study’s authors told Down To Earth

Babies learn to move their heads at three months and roll from back to stomach at 5-6 months, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Previous studies suggested that abnormal movements could signal developmental disorders, particularly cerebral palsy. It is a disorder that affects a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

The new study focuses on information flow among muscle signals. It did not study swaddling, the practice of wrapping babies in blankets, which is known to restrict movements. 

Restricted environments could change sensation and brain maturation, Kanazawa said based on findings from his previous study.

Kanazawa and his colleagues theorised that babies’ spontaneous movements occur due to spontaneous neural activity. So, they assessed the role of such action in early development.

The research included 12 healthy neonates aged over 10 days and 10 three-month-old infants. The team used motion capture technology to document spontaneous movements.

Next, they estimated the babies’ muscle activity and sensory input signals, which induces muscle to stretch, using a computer model and also analysed the interactions between input signals and muscle activity.

Movements by the infant group, they found, showed more common patterns and sequential movements compared to the newborn group’s random movements.

Infants use their curiosity or exploratory behaviours to influence the sensorimotor system — the ability to control their muscles, movement and coordination, the scientists observed.

They are not just repeating the same action but a variety of actions, Kanazawa noted. It was earlier assumed that repeating a movement will likely help infants learn and remember it. 

The researchers hope to study how sensorimotor wandering impacts later development, such as walking and reaching. They also plan to examine their role in more complex behaviours and higher cognitive functions.

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