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Study finds reasoning, a key skill in learning, begins in the toddler years

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Babies as young as 18 months are capable of puzzling out what you might be thinking.

The ability to reason has an enormous impact on how both adults and children understand, evaluate and accept what they are taught -- how we come to know the things that we know.

A new UCLA study published in a leading biological research journal suggests that babies as young as 18 months old can reason: they can figure out what another person might be thinking.

The researchers wanted to know not only how young a child might be able to watch a situation unfold and have a reasonable response as to what someone in the scenario might be thinking. They studied children around the world, from China to Fiji and Ecuador, to see how culture affects this mental process. And they did find some fascinating differences.

The researchers used a “false-belief test” which has been conducted mostly on older children.

In this study, a person placed a pair of scissors in a box and left the room. Another person entered, took the scissors out of the box, put them in her pocket, and left. When the original person came back into the room, the researchers studied where the toddler, who witnessed the whole process, presumed the original scissor-holder would look for the scissors. The UCLA researchers found the baby’s eyes went immediately to the empty box.

This process is complex because the test subject must realize that the first person will still believe the scissors are in the box even though he or she knows they're not there anymore.

What is most significant, the UCLA anthropologists said, is the finding that an 18-month-old child has a “theory of mind," the ability to reasonably predict what someone else might be thinking.

As for the cultural differences, the researchers told livescience.com that in many societies, parents don't make a habit of asking children rhetorical questions like, "What is the cow doing?" when the adults already know the answer. As a result, children in those cultures may be confused by those questions. They might think: "Why are you asking me, you should know it?"” according to H. Clark Barrett, the study's author.

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