Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2001Volume 29, Number 16

Karen Wynn

Psychologist Karen Wynn cited for pioneering
study of infants' ability to recognize numbers

Psychology professor Karen Wynn, who studies infants' ability to recognize and reason about numbers, received the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The award, which includes $50,000 in research funding, is given to two investigators age 40 or younger in recognition of unusual achievement and to further empirical research in psychology regarding the relationships of consciousness and the physical world.

Wynn, who completed her undergraduate studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and earned her Ph.D. in cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says she was surprised by the award because she did not know she had been nominated.

"It's very nice," says Wynn, who was cited by the NAS "for her pioneering research on the foundations of quantitative and mathematical thinking in infants and young children."

Peter Salovey, chair of the Department of Psychology, says Wynn was recruited from the University of Arizona two years ago because "we already knew she was one of the very best infancy researchers in the world.

"So, while Karen may have been surprised by the award, her new colleagues weren't at all," Salovey adds.

The focus of Wynn's research is cognitive development with an emphasis on the first year of life. She is particularly interested in early numerical competence and the basis of early numerical understanding in humans.

"I have always been interested in mathematics. I'm good at it and enjoy it," she says. "So I became interested in the fundamental mechanisms in the human mind that enable us to hold numerical concepts and represent mathematical knowledge."

Wynn's studies have revealed that infants can distinguish different quantities of things. This was demonstrated by having infants look at a puppet jump a given number of times, and, once they were bored with this activity, showing the puppet a new number of times.

"It is well established that infants look longer at things that are unexpected or are surprising to them," she says. "In that particular study we would build up the expectation that the puppet would jump, say, two times. Once habituated, when an infant's looking time drops below certain criteria and the infant is becoming bored, we then enter the test phase of the experiment."

The infants would then watch the puppet jump twice or three times. The infants looked longer at the puppet when it jumped three times, showing that they had detected the change in number. Similarly, if the infant subjects were used to watching the puppet jump three times, they looked longer when the puppet jumped only twice.

Other studies by Wynn demonstrated that five-month-old infants can compute results of simple additions and subtractions, again relying on the fact that infants look longer at unexpected events. For example, when shown first one object and then another placed behind a screen, infants expected to see two objects when the screen was removed and looked longer if an incorrect outcome -- one object, or three -- was revealed.

The NAS stated that preference for the Troland Research Award is given to experimental work taking a quantitative or other formal approach, including mathematics and explicit algorithms or symbolic logics of various types, or to experimental research seeking physiological explanations.

The NAS is a private, nonprofit society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research. The academy has a mandate from Congress to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters.

--- By Jacqueline Weaver


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