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Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders

Growth Curve


Growth Curve

Here’s how a child sees a Van Gogh painting

kid looking at paintings

Kids are initially drawn to bold, bright areas of paintings, but their gazes can change after learning more about the work, a study finds.

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One of the best things about having young children is that they give you a new way to see the world — a total cliché, yes, but true. Rainbows in water fountains are mesmerizing. Roly-poly bugs are worth stopping for. Bright blouses on strangers are remarked on, loudly. It’s occasionally embarrassing but always fun to see how this gorgeous world captivates children.  

An inventive new study attempted to get inside the minds of children as they looked at works of art, specifically paintings hanging in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Francesco Walker, a cognitive psychologist who conducted the study while at VU University Amsterdam, and colleagues equipped nine children and 12 adults with eye-tracking headsets as they observed five paintings. The children were ages 11 and 12. Participants saw each painting twice, before and after hearing a description of the art. (You can watch a video explainer of the experiment here.)

When the children first viewed a Van Gogh painting, they focused on bold, bright colors and attention-grabbing objects: A striped house, vivid roses, dark trees painted against a light skyline.

But after they heard a little background information about the paintings, their gazes shifted. For instance, after seeing the serene “Landscape at Twilight” for the first time, the children were told that some of the hay contained green flecks of paint from a different painting. During their second look at the painting, the children spent more time looking at the hay.

The adults, in contrast, weren’t as drawn to the bright colors and attention-grabbing objects on their first (or second) looks. They focused more on other areas of the paintings. 

The results, published June 21 in PLOS ONE, show that when children are given context about a painting they shift what they focus on while viewing it.

That switch in gaze represents an interesting switch in thinking, the researchers believe. The first type of viewing relies on “bottom-up” attention, in which the eye is drawn to whatever visually pops out. Walker describes this sort of looking as something involuntary, driven by the physical properties of an object or scene. The second sort of attention, called “top-down,” is more purposeful. “Top-down attentional control is driven voluntarily, by factors that are internal to the observer,” Walker says.

Looking for your friend in a crowd, holding a picture of her in mind, requires intentional searching. That’s a top-down task. But if you’re suddenly captivated by the sight of a monkey playing a tiny accordion, that would be a bottom-up diversion. Studies like this one on children and adults suggest that with age, “top-down processes become more and more important, while bottom-up attention loses strength,” Walker says.  

Similar data would be much harder to pull from younger, wigglier children. I showed one of the paintings used in the study — Van Gogh’s “Tree Roots,” an abstract jumble of blue and brown and green — to my 4-year-old.

In the absence of eye-tracking technology, I just asked my daughter what she saw. She started by naming colors: “Blue, green, brown.” After she ran through all of the hues, I asked if she saw anything else. She paused, considering the image carefully. “Is it dinosaurs?” she asked. I told her that it’s a painting of tangled, blue tree roots in the ground. “But that green part looks like a Tyrannosaurus,” she told me. As her little finger gestured toward my computer screen, I saw what she meant: A green T. Rex head, rising majestically from the roots.

Parenting,, Guidelines

When should babies sleep in their own rooms?

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, June 22, 2017
A new study offers support to sleep-starved parents by suggesting that babies age 6 months and older sleep longer when in their own bedroom.
Guidelines,, Health

It’s best if babies don’t drink their fruit as juice

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, June 8, 2017
New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no fruit juice for babies younger than 1 year old.
Child Development

Babies categorize colors the same way adults do

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, June 1, 2017
Babies divide hues into five categories, much like adults, a result that suggests color categorization is built into the brain.
Health,, Child Development

Drugs for reflux disease in infants may come with unintended consequences

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, May 24, 2017
Infants prescribed proton-pump inhibitors for reflux disease may be at higher risk for broken bones later on.
Child Development,, Guidelines

Toddlers’ screen time linked to speech delays and lost sleep, but questions remain

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, May 12, 2017
Two new studies link handheld screen time for young children to less sleep and greater risk of expressive language delays. But the results are preliminary.
Child Development,, Health

Long naps lead to less night sleep for toddlers

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, April 26, 2017
Daytime naps can steal sleep from the night, a small study of toddlers suggests.
Health,, Guidelines

Evidence is lacking that ‘cocooning’ prevents whooping cough in newborns

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, April 20, 2017
In general, vaccinating adults who come into close contact with newborns is a good idea, but the practice on its own may not keep whooping cough away.
Health,, Parenting

Vaccinating pregnant women protects newborns from whooping cough

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, April 12, 2017
Pregnant women who receive the pertussis, or whooping cough, vaccine pass on to their new-borns immunity to the potentially deadly bacterial infection.
Child Development,, Health

Language heard, but never spoken, by young babies bestows a hidden benefit

By Laura Sanders 2:00pm, April 5, 2017
Adults who as babies heard but never spoke Korean benefited from their latent language knowledge decades later, a new study finds.
Health,, Child Development

For kids, daily juice probably won’t pack on the pounds

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, March 30, 2017
An analysis of existing studies suggests that regular juice drinking isn’t linked to much weight gain in kids.
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