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Triplets Hakima, Alima and Rahima enjoy bathtime with their friend Melanie at the Arnaud Guesry Foundation children's home, Madagascar

Since 2012, I have been studying laughing babies. The question I am most often asked—frequently accompanied by incredulous laughter—is “Why?” And sometimes, “Wouldn’t it be better to study what makes them cry?”

When people look at my job as a baby scientist, they imagine that my goal is to help new parents get everything right. Even if that were possible, that’s not what we’re trying to do. Baby scientists study humanity through the eyes of infancy—and I study baby laughter because it’s at the heart of what makes us human. 

My “proper” job title is “developmental psychologist.” I started studying babies because it seemed like the best place to start in psychology. The foundation of everything we become is laid in the womb and those frenetic first two years. I was interested in the origins of language, thought, intelligence, and consciousness. Those were all very big and difficult topics, so it seemed wise to start with baby steps.

Starting my Ph.D. in 2005, I investigated the origins of abstract ideas like “sameness” and “difference.” I then worked on two projects that looked at the very beginning of speech comprehension and how our brains develop a sense of time. All of these studies involved parents coming to our lab and their babies playing little games we invented to test their understanding of the world. 

These encounters led me to baby laughter. Babies treated our studies as delightful games and they played with intense concentration. I wondered if their enjoyment might give clues about what they were thinking.

Infant psychology was already built on this assumption. Two of our main methods involve surprising babies. In habituation studies, we show them similar things repeatedly until they are bored and then change a crucial detail to see if they perk up. If after 10 pictures of a female face, they perk up when they see a male face, they know something is different. Remarkably, three-month-olds already notice this subtle difference and it was a question we couldn’t easily ask them any other way (see Quinn et al. 2002).

In violation of expectation studies, we show babies both possible and impossible events. If babies look longer at an impossible event, it implies they understand that the world doesn’t work that way. They might look longer at a block floating in mid-air compared to a block resting on a solid surface if they understand something about gravity.

Laughter seemed like another approach to understanding. Babies won’t laugh if they don’t get the joke. 

But once I started studying laughter, I realised this wasn’t the most important thing about it. The main things that make babies laugh are not things. They’re other people. Baby laughter is intensely social. It is an invitation for you to engage with the baby. It encourages you to keep playing a game. And often the best bit of that game is the fact that you are playing.

One of the central things babies have to learn about is other people. Laughing with you helps them do so. We see this most clearly in peekaboo, which, my research found, was the best way to make babies laugh all over the world. It is also Social Interaction 101—a conversation that even preverbal babies can understand, participate in, and enjoy. 

Realising this made me change the focus of my own research. I became less interested in the cognitive side of development and started to look more at the social and emotional side of infancy. You might say that I moved from thoughts to feelings. Those are a lot harder to study, but baby laughter helped me see I was on the right path. Laughter shows that babies really enjoy being babies.

As adults, we can be distant from that magic and joy. We can see it in children’s faces. But rarely do we go inside their experience. How wonderful and terrifying the world seems to them. Laughter is the sign that—despite everything—they are thriving. It invites frazzled parents to share the triumphs and rewards them for their love and attention. These are all key elements of successful development and it has been interesting to try and uncover. I sometimes call this “positive psychology for babies.”

What have I learned? Well, it would take a whole book to answer that. And, as luck would have it, I have just written one. The Laughing Baby was published by Unbound in the U.K. in April 2020 and the U.S. edition comes out in May. It covers all the important things that babies must learn in the first two years and shows how shared joy and laughter are an essential thread running through that whole time. Over the coming months, I will be posting extracts here and sharing more of the cutest science in the universe. 

This post first appeared on

A surgeon scrubs his hands and arms before going into the operating room at Riverside County Regional Medical Center.

A short extract from my book:

Ignaz Semmelweis,

In Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s there were two maternity wards, Clinic 1 and Clinic 2, which admitted women on alternating days. The first clinic was attended by medical students, the second clinic by midwives. Pregnant women admitted on Clinic 1 days begged to be admitted to Clinic 2, as it seemed to be common knowledge that Clinic 1 was cursed. Data collected from 1842 to 1846 were incontrovertible: maternal death rates were 60% lower in the midwives’ clinic. A junior doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, was tasked with investigating this. He found no differences in the clinics themselves, nor the delivery procedures. He made the suggestion, unusual for the time, that the medical students wash their hands with strongly chlorinated water. When they did, death rates dropped to levels found in Clinic 2. The medical students had come often from dissecting cadavers in anatomy classes. They didn’t wash their hands because, well, why would they? There was no reason. This was decades before the germ theory of disease was proved by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

Semmelweis presented his findings to his superiors. He could not explain why the washing of hands helped, so they did not adopt his suggestions. Shortly afterwards he was fired and he returned to his native Hungary. Hospitals where he worked showed similar improvements, but his new colleagues would not adopt his methods either. He spent 20 years in increasingly angry correspondence with the European medical establishment. He was largely ignored. He died in an insane asylum in 1865, a broken and defeated man. In psychology, the Semmelweis Reflex is a cognitive bias where we reject new evidence when it contradicts existing beliefs or established paradigms.

The Laughing Baby p.25-6

The Laughing Baby is published on 16 April 2020. You can purchase it from Unbound or via Amazon.

Laughter makes the impossible possible. Just ask a baby.

3 week old baby Cosmo is already enjoying life.

Laughter makes life worth living. It makes impossible situations possible. Just ask a baby. Imagine the scenario; You have just been dropped on a completely alien planet. You know nothing about this place, about its people or its language, its customs or its culture, its animals or its architecture. Heck, even its very physics is alien to you. If you couldn’t laugh, you’d cry. This the world of a baby.

But for a baby it’s even worse than that. Not only have you arrived cold, wet and helpless in a world you know nothing about, in fact, you know nothing about anything. Your memory is blank. Your limbs are not yours to command. Your muscles are too feeble to even lift your head. You can’t control your most basic bodily functions. You don’t even have a language of your own to think in. Oh, and did I mention all those aliens about fifteen to twenty times your size? No wonder babies start screaming shortly after their arrival.

The first month or so is a time of bewilderment, mostly taken up with sleep and screaming, nutrition and growth. But three cheerful miracles help babies survive in this terrifying situation. Survive and indeed thrive. First, babies come equipped with the most remarkable computers ever invented. Babies brains are the most powerful learning devices in the known universe. In two short years babies probably learn more profound truths than in the rest of lives. Secondly, babies have landed in an extremely benign environment. Human parents do infinitely more for their offspring than any other species. People have an inbuilt tendency to cherish and support babies. We can’t help loving these new invaders into our lives. Thirdly and most remarkable of all, it turns out we can communicate with each other right from the start. Despite no shared language or culture we can make an amazing emotional connection from day one.

For more like this, please look out for my book The Laughing Baby. It is being published by crowd-funded publisher, Unbound Books. So it needs your support to make it a reality. Please pre-order your copy or tell your friends with babies 🙂

How to take your first steps in baby science or baby theatre

The “Baby Lab” at Polka theatre gets ready to welcome an audience of 6–18 month old babies.

Imagine for a moment that you wanted create a piece of theatre to entertain babies or a scientific experiment to test their understanding, how would you go about it? In this article I will give you a handy six step recipe that will help you get started in either situation. And along the way I hope to persuade you why these are both such worthwhile and important undertakings. The surprising thing is that the process is very similar. Despite 10 years of experience running experiments with babies I only discovered this myself very recently.

Over the last few months myself and colleagues from Birkbeck Babylab have been collaborating with the creative team at Polka Theatre. The goal has been to make a piece of theatre for 6 to 18 month old infants based on our research as part of Polka’s upcoming Brain Waves Festival (21 Sept — 2 Oct 2016). Brain Waves is a two-week long festival of science and theatre that matches artists and neuroscientists to create new theatre productions for children. Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award the festival features four original works for a range of audiences between 6 months and 16 years old.

To create a show for babies, Polka turned to Sarah Argent, a very experienced theatre director, who in recent years has specialised in creating works for babies and toddlers. In February, Sarah came to Birkbeck Babylab and after speaking to a range of our colleagues she honed in on me and my fellow baby scientists Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey. Rosy studies how we read the social movements of others. Sinead investigates rhythm and dance in babies and I study what makes babies laugh. Dancing babies, social babies, laughing babies. We could see how that makes a good start for a show. Sinead and I have also spent several years studying babies’ sense of time. We were curious how Sarah and her team would work with that.

In fact, at that first meeting, we were very curious about everything…

Step zero: Why are we here?

Let’s take a step back, why would you want to create theatre for babies or try to run a psychology study with infant participants? Wouldn’t theatre for babies be limited? Wouldn’t experiments with adults give you clearer answers?

One important first principle that seems to be shared by baby psychologists and baby theatre makers is that we both treat babies as full citizens. Theatre for babies is not theatre for adults but smaller. And science for babies is not science for adults but simpler. Baby psychologists are not simply cataloguing when various abilities come online. For us, babyhood is not merely a way-station to something better. We care about what it is like to be a baby. We try to understand babies from the inside. In theatre for babies, the ambitions seem to be the same.

Step one: Why are we here, today?

Our lofty ambitions and elaborate, theory won’t mean a thing to the babies. To communicate with them we have to be concrete and we have to be focused. We must always start with a very specific question. To get answers from them we must present them with just one thing at a time.

Sarah’s previous show for babies Scrunch is a great example of this. Developed from her first show, Out of the Blue, performed at Polka at various times between 2008 and 2014, Scrunch is set at Christmas and it features just one actor (Sarah’s husband Kevin Lewis). It builds slowly and smoothly, transitioning from event to event at a pace that is often determined by the babies in the audience. Parents coming to our lab are often surprised by how short the actual experiments are. Their baby may spend as little as 3 or 4 minutes doing the task we set them. To get that exactly right, you need to think deeply about your goals before you set off. You must consider lots of possible options to find the best way to ask your question.

I think this is somewhere that baby science can learn from baby theatre. In my experience people in science are impatient problem solvers. You start telling them about something and they leap ahead of you second guessing outcomes and jumping to conclusions, the tempo seems very different in theatre. Our first full day of collaboration at Polka, the whole creative team assembled with Rosy, Sinead and I to discuss our work and there was no rush. People work in theatre are a good audience. They really do listen. They absorb, then they ask great questions.

Step two: Who is our audience?

A six-month-old is a very different person from a sixteen month old. A hungry baby is different person from the same baby after a good meal. An overtired toddler can have a lot of angry energy. We have to work with this not against it.

We never expect any given baby to “pass or fail” and results are based on the group not the individual because we might not get a baby at their best. For similar reasons, we rarely attempt to track the development of babies over time, preferring to test a group of 6 month olds and compare them to different groups of 4 or 8 month olds.

We try to make our tasks work with a wide age range. But often babies have other ideas. Sinead and I tried to teach babies about time by playing a game. Seven times in a row, Sinead would lift the babies’ hands every 4 seconds. On the eight time, she’d sit there and see if the babies anticipated. Four, six & eight month olds played the game happily. You can see a video of this here. But from 10 months and up, babies refused to even let us hold their hands. For them a different game would be required. In baby theatre, there isn’t the luxury of having a narrow age range. The show must have broad appeal.

Babies are fantastic participants for psychological studies because they are both open-minded and honest. They will consider anything we present them with but they won’t hold back their opinions. This makes them challenge but rewarding audience for theatre.

Step three: The story

I read somewhere that good storytelling is about being simple, truthful, emotional, real and relevant. This would make for a good infant experiment too. An ideal for infant scientists would be to observe babies solving problems in their everyday lives. We can rarely do this but our lab must recreate as much of a natural situation as possible.

And it must be engaging. Infant attention is a precious commodity. After a few minutes in one situation their attention will wander. Everything is interesting to a baby. I’ve lost count of the number of times a baby has found his or her socks more interesting than my experiment. I am very envious when I see Sarah’s shows keeping babies entranced for 20 minutes or more. If I can learn some of her tricks this collaboration will have been invaluable to me.

The final rule is “show, don’t tell.” With preverbal infants, this goes without saying.

Step four: Rehearsal

Despite all the handy rules of step three, the mantra for step four is “easier said than done.” Nothing will work quite as you expect and solving problems is the order of the day. Early rehearsals (or piloting as we call it) are where the real creativity happens.

Sarah very wisely invites some babies to those early meetings because as we know well from our BabyLab, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In one experiment we had a ball on a stick that swung round for the babies to grab. They greatly enjoyed it. The trouble was they wouldn’t let go. It took a great deal of practice to learn how to distract the babies in just the right way it that wouldn’t provoke a rebellion.

When you get to the actual performance so much is happening at once that you need to have had extensive practice. Technical and dress rehearsal are invaluable in baby science too. In our studies there is often someone hiding behind a curtain jingling bells to get babies looking in the right direction madly pressing buttons to make teddy bears pop up on screen at just the right time and to ensure all the data gets recorded.

Step five: Showtime

In a recent ‘manifesto’ on theatre for children, Purni Morrell declared that “Art has to start from a shared position of ignorance.” This holds true for science too. You can’t make up your mind in advance. Or what would be the point?

And this all goes double when you are working with babies. Babies are enigmatic. If you think you know what baby is thinking you are probably wrong. Until we are there on the day with the babies we can’t know what will happen.

I do know that I am really looking forward to the premiere of Shake, Rattle and Roll.

As part of Brain Waves Festival we are running a series of blogs about making theatre with neuroscientists. If you have any questions or want to let us know what you thought, you can do on social media using #BrainWavesFest

Original post: How to take your first steps in baby science or baby theatre (Polka blog)

Dr. Caspar Addyman is a Psychology Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his research is with babies. He has investigated how we acquire our first concepts, the statistical processes that help us get started with learning language and where our sense of time comes from. Before moving to Goldsmiths, he spent 10 years working in Birkbeck Babylab.

Insight Timer is quite an interesting app. Includes social elements that let you ‘meditate with’ people all over the world.. which feels about fake and annoying at first but grows on you.

THE laughing baby. He even has his own wikipedia entry. Here’s what they say:

The Laughing Baby is an Internet neologism given to a YouTube viral video of a baby laughing. The video has become an internet phenomenon with over 6 million views[2] (The “Hahaha ” version by BlackOleg, which is exactly the same as the original, was viewed for mais de 103 million times as of Sep. 2008). [3]Uploaded by a Swedish man with the pseudonym  spacelord72, [4]and later re-uploaded and popularized by another user known as BlackOleg, [5] the “Laughing Baby” is one of the few internet memes that have entered popular culture.[1]
I wonder what else makes him laugh? (Most things, I imagine)
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