Research Roundup

Infants' gaze may offer clues to their ability to calm themselves

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but when it comes to infants, they could also be a window into a baby's cognitive and emotional skills. Anjolii Diaz, a Virginia Tech developmental and biological psychology grad student, has found that infants with "shorter looking times" — that is, those who efficiently scan their environments instead of focusing intently on particular objects for sustained periods — show physiological signs of better emotional regulation following distress than infants who look longer at objects. Her research was published in April in Infant Behavior and Development.

Infants who don’t spend too long looking at any one object seem to be more efficient at processing information, a new study finds.To investigate that link, Diaz measured the gaze duration of 5-month-old infants, and then measured their brain activity with an EEG and their heart rates with an ECG.

She obtained baseline values by having the infants calmly watch a toy for several minutes. Then, the infants' mothers began to play with them using a toy, then abruptly took the toy away and held it at arm's length to induce distress. If this did not upset the infant, the mothers were asked to gently hold their infants' arms down to restrict movement.

EEG readings at baseline and after distress showed big differences between short-lookers and long-lookers. The short-lookers showed increased activation at multiple EEG scalp locations, including those located on the frontal lobe, which previous research indicates are involved in emotional control and inhibition. Diaz says that finding suggests that after facing duress, the short-lookers used their efficient information processing skills to regulate themselves when distressed.

Interestingly, once the mothers had soothed their babies, the long-lookers had lower heart rates than the short-lookers, which was opposite from what Diaz expected if the short-lookers were better at regulating their emotions. She plans to follow up these studies by repeating the experiment when the children are 10 months old.

"That finding was very interesting," she says, "so I hope my follow-up research will provide more answers."

One student's 30-minute module is changing lawyers' minds

Harsh programs for juvenile offenders, like TV's "Beyond Scared Straight," usually don't work to help young lawbreakers turn their lives around, research suggests. However, past research shows that the public supports such tough interventions, says Abigayl Perelman, a clinical psychology and law doctoral student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

To investigate what tomorrow's lawyers and policymakers think of such programs, Perelman surveyed 161 law students from 47 schools, asking them a variety of questions to determine whether they believe offenders commit crimes due to a criminal nature or their environments. She also asked about their primary sentencing goals (rehabilitative, punitive or retributive), and their attitudes toward seven juvenile offender rehab programs — four supported by empirical evidence and three featured in popular media but lacking empirical backing — and whether they would recommend the programs to potential clients.

Jibing with surveys of the general public, the law students who were more punitive or retributive and believed that crime is a product of one's disposition were more likely to support non-empirical programs, while those who supported rehabilitation and favored the environmental explanation for criminal behavior supported evidence-based programs.

Next, the participants watched one of three slideshows. One promoted the effectiveness of empirically supported programs, another emphasized the weaknesses of non-empirical programs and the third provided straight facts about juvenile crime. Then Perelman gave the participants a follow-up questionnaire to see if they'd changed their support for the various programs.

Those who saw just the facts showed no change, but those who watched the slideshow emphasizing the weaknesses of non-empirical programs decreased their support for those programs and those who saw the slideshow promoting the effectiveness of empirically supported programs both increased their support for those programs and decreased their support for non-empirical ones.

Perelman, who presented her findings at the North American Correctional and Criminal Justice Psychology Conference last summer, says the findings are heartening — suggesting that if one reaches future judges and lawyers early, they can be taught the benefits of empirically supported juvenile offender programs, even if they may look "soft on crime" to the public.

"Look at what a 30-minute module can do," she says. "It'd be great to get targeted programs like these incorporated into law school curricula."

To learn about a new place, explore on your own, study suggests

What are the factors that allow some people to have an excellent sense of direction while others are lost without a GPS? Elizabeth Chrastil, a cognitive science graduate student at Brown University, and her colleagues set up a virtual "hedge maze" to find out.

Making decisions about routes helps people build mental maps.Participants donned virtual reality helmets and entered a labyrinth scattered with objects such as clocks, statues and wells. Researchers told some participants to explore the maze on their own — on foot or in a wheelchair — or while sitting and using a keyboard to move around. Other participants also explored the maze, but did not make decisions about where to go — they watched a video, got pushed in a wheelchair or were led by the elbow on a planned course. Chrastil instructed all groups of participants to find all the objects and learn their locations.

After that initial run-through, Chrastil asked participants to go from one object to another using the maze paths.

She found that walkers who had explored on their own were much better than the guided walkers at completing the route test. "Being able to make the [navigation] decisions seems to make a big difference," she says.

The findings suggest that if you're trying to learn the layout of a new city, explore on your own, Chrastil says. "Don't just follow someone along who knows the way," she says. "Mutually make decisions about the route and make predictions about what you expect to see."