The foundations of the animate-inanimate distinction in infancy: How motion gets babies off the ground

A fundamental cognitive ability is the capacity to recognize and categorize things in one’s surroundings as animate beings (humans and other animals) or as inanimate objects (artifacts and natural kinds). The animate-inanimate distinction appears to have neurophysiological correlates, is universal, and is central to a broad range of more complex conceptual understandings. Given the centrality of the concept of animacy, how knowledge about animacy develops is of critical importance. From as early as 3 months of age human children distinguish between motion patterns generated by moving inanimate objects and motion patterns generated by moving animate objects. By that age, infants can also distinguish between members of each of these broad categories. I have recently argued that one of the ways entities are classified as animate or inanimate is by analysis of dynamic information, such as movement. Dynamic cues relevant to the animate-inanimate distinction include onset of motion, trajectory, and causal roles. In this talk, I will present the results of a set of experiments showing that, by the end of the first year, infants are able to associate dynamic cues with featural information characteristic of an animal or an artifact. For instance, infants as young as 12 months consider a computer-animated vehicle that follows a nonlinear trajectory to be an anomalous event (e.g., a bus jumping over a wall). By 14 months, infants can also make inductive inferences about the motion trajectory of a wide range of animate objects (e.g., animals and people can jump). I will also discuss the mechanisms involved in the development of the animacy distinction after the infancy period.

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