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Children Learn to Visualize by Age 2

If someone tells you a friend got her nose pierced, you can visualize the new look and incorporate the information into your thinking and expectations. Young infants can't imagine such things. Their thinking, instead, is based highly on what's in front of them, what they can see.

So when do children gain this ability to visualize things based on what they've been told?

Between 19 and 22 months of age, a study indicates.

Researchers studied two groups of children, one group aged 19 months and the other 22 months. The kids were each given a toy animal and asked to name it. Later, the toy was put in another room. Then the child was told the toy had become soaking wet because someone spilled a bucket of water.

The question was whether the infants would incorporate this information into their mental representation. When asked to retrieve the animal from the next room, would they reach for the wet animal, or might they grab an identical, dry one that had been placed there, too?

The 22-month-olds went for the wet toy. They had incorporated what they'd been told and acted solely on that information. The 19-month-olds did not.

The study, detailed in the August issue of Psychological Science, suggests that by age 2, children can update their knowledge based on what they are told.

“This nascent ability constitutes a significant cognitive advance, enabling children to vastly expand their knowledge by learning about the world through verbal interaction," wrote Boston University psychologist Patricia Ganea.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.