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Making sense of baby brainpower

We’ve all lived it, but few of us can remember it — being a baby, that is.

Aimee Stahl investigates the inner workings of the minds of babies and toddlers. 

Aimee Stahl, associate professor of psychology, has spent her career researching how infants and young children learn, and as this year’s winner of the Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize, she’ll delve further into a baby’s power of recall.

“During my sabbatical, I will be focusing on infant working memory, or how many things babies can remember at a time in their short-term memory,” she explains.

Stahl says that we already know that adults can use processes like “chunking” or grouping information together to make it easier to remember. For example, an adult at the grocery store might remember strawberries, grapes, bananas, cheese, milk and butter by grouping the items into larger food categories like “produce” and “dairy.” Remembering two broad categories is easier and more efficient than trying to remember six individual items.

Now, Stahl is looking into how this same process works in the minds of babies and toddlers, and if this type of learning is affected by social preferences.  

“I’ll be examining what other kinds of social information babies can use to chunk to help them remember more,” Stahl says. For example, she’ll look to determine if babies can chunk four identical dolls into two sets of two, if two of those dolls are associated with one type of toy, like trucks, and the other two dolls are associated with a different toy, like balls.

If they can, it would show that infants not only can use sophisticated social information to help them remember more in their working memory, but also that they organize the world into social groups based on the same cues that adults use group individuals together.

Stahl started this research as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and is carrying it forward in her work in TCNJ’s Cognitive Development Lab — or “Baby Lab” as it is known on campus — housed on the first floor of the Social Sciences Building.

Some of Stahl’s plans for her sabbatical include coding and analyzing data that she and her undergraduate student collaborators at TCNJ have collected in past studies. She also plans to submit this work for publication in scientific journals.

Additionally, Stahl plans to collaborate with a colleague from Boston University to write a comprehensive review of their work on infant social knowledge and how it interacts with their memory.

“This is something we’ve always wanted to write, and this sabbatical will afford the time to take on such a large and collaborative project,” she says.

The Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize is made possible through the contributions of former TCNJ president R. Barbara Gitenstein and her husband Don Hart. Stahl is the eighth recipient of the Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize and continues in the tradition of exceptional TCNJ teacher-scholars who have received this award.

Julia Meehan ’22