Each year, one renowned psychological scientist is asked to write the opening article for the Annual Review of Psychology. This year, the honor was bestowed upon University of Virginia professor Rachel Keen, who has been in the field of developmental psychology since the late 1960′s and continues to do research as the director of the Early Childhood Lab. I felt honored when Rachel asked me to take her portrait to accompany her review!
I love the picture we chose because it portrays a true portrait of Rachel: on top of being an very accomplished scientist, she is incredibly sweet and lovely to everyone around her, and this portrait shows that. It was such a treat to chat with her through our shoot together, as she told me the story of her life and career – what an inspiration she is!
The review highlights her work over the past 15 years or so, as she teases apart the problem solving abilities of very young children.
One of my favorite studies she outlines in the article is one in which she uses a spoon to illustrate the ability of 9-to-19-month-old infants to plan. It turns out that if you present a spoon and a bowl of food to babies in this age range, but randomly change the direction that the spoon’s handle is pointing, infants don’t regularly grasp the spoon correctly on their first try until they reach 19 months of age.
So, at 19 months of age, humans show mastery over this kind of tool use, which is an example of means-end, or object-goal behavior. Before 19 months, they can eventually solve the spoon-orientation issue, but usually start out grasping it with the wrong hand, causing the spoon-end to be behind their pinky finger, and thus have an adorably hard time getting food into their mouths. It’s cute, but not productive until they can figure out how to turn that spoon around.
Tool use, or the ability to use an object to accomplish a goal, is part of what makes us human…and it really starts coming together before we even reach 2 years of age!