RedOrbit Exclusive Interview: Dr. Caspar Addyman, Birbeck University of London, Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development

Jedidiah Becker for — Your Universe Online

While our brains seem programmed to find baby laughter to be one of the most pleasant sounds imaginable, scientists at Birbeck University of London believe there´s also a lot that those adorable little coos and giggles can teach us about the early development of the human brain.

Led by Dr. Caspar Addyman of university´s world-renowned BabyLab, a team of researchers is preparing to embark on a study that they´ve dubbed The Baby Laughter project. The team plans to study the laughter of hundreds of babies under the age of two and a half in hopes of getting a closer look at how the infant brain works as well as how its cognitive abilities change over time.

Dr. Addyman recently spoke with redOrbit about the importance of baby laughter in brain development and what his team hopes to learn from studying it.

Read the original article “Baby Laughter Project Aims To Understand Cognitive Development” first.

RO: In very broad strokes, can you describe what we already know about baby laughter and what it can tell us about a child´s cognitive development?

Addyman: The short answer is that we don´t know much. This is largely because laughter is tricky subject to study in the laboratory. People have been speculating about the causes and purposes of early laughter for a long time but there has been very little systematic work. Surprisingly, one of the earliest researchers to take this topic seriously was Charles Darwin. He published a paper on his careful observations of his infant son Doddy. Darwin drew parallels between infant laughter and the playfulness of puppies and kittens.

In the 1940´s Jean Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, took up this idea. Like Darwin, Piaget observed his own children and thought laughter and playfulness were signs of cognitive mastery. According to his theory, learning in early childhood is a continual cycle of accommodation and assimilation. Accommodation is the serious and effortful adaption of the child´s mental model to new facts about world. Assimilation is the pleasurable experimentation and exploration that takes place in light of this new knowledge. A baby in a phase of assimilation will laugh and smile at his or her newfound skill. In the process they would be likely to discover something new and provoking, prompting a further round of accommodation.

By Piaget´s theory, laughter should track cognitive development. But we don´t if this theory is true. There was some work in the 1970´s but it was limited and inconclusive. By conducting a large global survey of what makes babies laugh, we first hope to establish that babies do in fact laugh as they are learning and then use this as a new window onto what we already know about early cognitive development.

RO: What are some of the specific aspects of cognitive development that you and your team intend to study in the Baby Laughter Project?

Addyman: We will be looking at baby laughter from both a social and a cognitive perspective. Can it tell us anything new about infants´ social interactions, and can we find evidence that laughter tracks cognitive development? Importantly, we will be looking at laughter across the whole first few years of life to see what differences there are between babies of different ages.

There are a lot of cognitive landmarks in the first two years of life. Babies must understand object permanence and basic physical principles like gravity and the solidity of (most) objects. They start to learn the meaning of social cues like eyegaze or pointing. They start to work out the meaning of nouns, verbs and of more abstract concepts like ℠no´ or ℠all gone´. Developmental psychologists have lots of theories about how this development takes place and have conducted lots of experiments to demonstrate the approximate ages at which landmarks are reached. We hope that our research will provide evidence to corroborate these other findings. For instance, is knocking over blocks funniest for babies who are just establishing a naïve theory of gravity?

Obviously, we mustn´t overlook the fact that laughing is a highly social experience. Research on adult laughter finds that the majority of our laughter is provoked by social interaction rather than events that are inherently funny or amusing. Laughter acts like social glue. Babies can smile and laugh long before they can talk and this is clearly important to their bonding with their caregivers. We will be looking at where, when and with whom babies laugh the most (and the least), and seeing if there are differences between babies. Does a baby´s laughter relate to other aspects of their temperament? Are there cultural differences?

RO: Can you give a preview of some of the specific types of experiments that will be included in the Baby Laughter Project?

Addyman: Initially, the project is collecting survey data from families with babies under two and a half. We have a detailed questionnaire that we would like parents to fill in. We are also encouraging friends and family to fill in short ℠field reports´ or send us videos documenting particular incidents that make babies laugh. The more data we get the better, so we´d encourage your readers to take part or tell their friends.

Depending on what we find in the survey, we may try and reproduce some laughter in the laboratory. For example, it might be instructive to examine the game of peek-a-boo. It is a very popular with babies of all ages, but the chances are, it is a very different game at different ages. For young babies, it is all about object permanence — they are pleasantly surprised when a parent reappears. As they get older and their memory develops, it becomes more an exercise in anticipation. Later still, the important and entertaining aspects of peek-a-boo might be related to turn-taking and social interaction. Sadly, it is very expensive to run experiments with babies. So bringing laughter to the laboratory would depend on getting the necessary funding.

RO: While happy babies are obviously more pleasant to work with than screaming babies, is there something about these developmental processes that make laughter a particularly robust tool for studying them?

Addyman: If Piaget is right, then laughing babies are likely to be highly engaged with whatever is in front of them. This would be useful in the laboratory, as many experiments with babies are a difficult balancing act between fun and boredom. In the classic ℠habituation´ paradigm in infancy research, we show a baby the same type of thing over and over again (for example, a picture of a dog then a picture of another dog, etc) until he or she gets bored, then we change something and see if the baby perks up (if we show them a picture of a cat, for instance). The trouble is that babies might not perk up because they can´t tell the difference (to them the cat is just another furry blob.) Alternatively, they could be bored by the whole situation, ignoring the screen to concentrate on pulling off their own socks. The more complex the question you are investigating, the harder it is keep the baby engaged long enough for them to discover what we want them to attend to.

Parental reports and funny YouTube videos are no substitute for controlled laboratory experiments. But they can give us more immediate and more convincing evidence that a baby understands a particular concept.

RO: You mention that laughter has been a “strangely neglected” feature of child behavior in previous studies on cognitive development. Do you have any idea as to why this might be?

Addyman: I think there are three reasons. Firstly, laughter is incredibly tricky to study in a scientific setting. Laughter is spontaneous, capricious and highly personal. Getting babies to laugh is relatively easy but getting them to laugh on demand is just as hard as stand-up comedy. Secondly, it is very difficult to untangle the social and the cognitive aspects of laughter. Is this baby laughing at me or with me? Finally, I suspect that a lot of scientists would think that laughter isn´t an appropriate topic for ℠serious´ investigation. I disagree strongly and I hope to prove that when laughing babies really do get the joke.

Dr. Addyman, thanks very much for taking the time have a chat with us. On behalf of the redOrbit team and our readership, we wish you the best of luck on the Baby Laughter Project and look forward to reading about your research once it´s complete.


Caspar Addyman is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London (aka Birkbeck Babylab). He received a BA in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1996 and then spent 9 years working in finance and banking. Fed up of corporate life, he did a night school BSc degree in psychology at Birkbeck and PhD in Psychology from Birkbeck. Graduating in 2009, he has been a postdoctoral researcher with appointments at Birkbeck and the University of Burgundy, France.

His research focuses on learning and development in the first year or two of life and combines connectionist models of behavior and empirical work with babies. His publications have looked at early abstract thought, statistical learning, language acquisition and time perception. His current main research interests are in the development of our sense of time and the meaning of baby laughter. In a separate strand of work he has been developing smartphone apps to track the cognitive and emotional effects of drug use. He runs the YourBrainonDrugs blog and developed the Boozerlyzer, a smartphone app that track the effects of alcohol. He is currently working to adapt the technology to track the effects of medication on Parkinson´s disease.