Wednesday, 26 November 2014

been to the Goldsmiths Infant Lab

OK, so a few things have happened since my last post (about reading serialised novels way back in January. Ahem). Probably the most significant of these is that I had a baby, though we also moved house, and Liars' League got mentioned in the Guardian's Top 10 Great Storytelling Nights and won a Saboteur Award for Best Regular Spoken Word Event. Don't ask me to sort these in order of importance because someone's going to get hurt.

Seriously though, I really did have a baby. (His eyes don't always look like that).

I was going to blog about the pregnancy – in fact I wrote all the posts – but then I got superstitious and didn't even want to talk about it until it was a done deal and the baby was safely out. He's now just over seven months old and is called Theo. I submit that just like everyone else's firstborn, he's the most attractive, intelligent, talented etc. child in the world and will surely end up running it. (Come on, he's cute).

Naturally I take every opportunity I can to show him off to admiring strangers, which is why this afternoon we found ourselves in an office in the Ben Pimlott Building, home of the Goldsmiths College Infant Lab. Although with a name like that it sounds like it should be growing foetuses in bottles a la Brave New World, it's actually where they study child development, and Theo was there to take part in an experiment on Visual/Tactile Attention in babies.

Every year (I guess, or possibly more frequently) Goldsmiths does a leaflet drop/mailout asking whether local parents and babies fancy coming in for an afternoon to help the cause of science. I jumped at the chance and eagerly filled in a form several months ago saying I was up for it, then sat back and waited for the emails to roll in. I'd almost given up when bingo! one of the researchers called me and asked if Theo and I would like to participate in their “Tickling Lights” study (one of many). Hells yeah, was the answer – I did a few psychology experiments at University and they were always fun, plus this one is play-based so it's not like the babies are being asked to do anything they wouldn't happily spend their time on anyway.

The researcher, Rhiannon, sent me an email with a map, explanation of the experiment, forms and info and so forth and we rocked up at 3pm to begin the testing. First of all the EEG net (like a shower cap made of electrodes) the babies wear needed to be sized and prepped, so Theo's head was measured (it's pretty big, is all you need to know) and while the cap was soaking in conductive solution (I'm guessing, possibly just water) me and the three researchers – all women in their early 20s, go #womeninscience – sat and entertained Theo with various new toys. I have to say that as fun psychology research jobs go this probably beats … pretty much anything, really.

Toys included a talking electronic trumpet (fairly desirable) a squishy ball (familiar and thus attractive) a That's Not My Dinosaur touchy-feely book (meh) and the star attraction, stacking cups from IKEA. This is clearly all Theo is going to want for Christmas, as the sheer repetitive joy of watching the dupe (mother or researcher) stack the cups in a tower only to raze them to the ground again with one flailing sweep just cannot be beat.

Anyway, after that we did the experiment.

Shower cap firmly fitted, leads trailing from his neck like a young cyber-Frankenstein, I carried Theo into a darkened inner office where he sat on my lap at a small knee desk. I was reassured that the darkness was nothing sinister, but just to ensure that he didn't get distracted by anything else in the room and concentrated on Rhiannon and the experiment. As any parent of a small baby knows, literally anything can distract them from literally anything else so this seemed like a sensible precaution.

Scratch mitts trailing more wires were fitted onto his hands, and we were ready to begin. (For the uninitiated: scratch mitts are thumbless mittens - essentially bags for the hands - which prevent newborns from scratching their own faces off with their tiny, darling, razor-sharp, fast-growing fingernails). The mitts had been adapted so that each contained a single LED light on the top and an apparatus inside like a palm buzzer. The idea was … well, let's let Rhiannon explain:

“If we feel a touch on one of our hands, it draws our attention to that hand. When we record adults’ brain activity whilst we flash a light on either the hand that they are paying attention to, or the hand that they are not, we see a difference in how the brain processes that flash of light. Paying attention to something causes a much larger brain response than if our attention is elsewhere.

(KD: So as I understand it, if you're looking at your right hand and a light flashes on it, that will register more than when the light flashes on your left hand – the one you're not looking at).

Gratuitous adorable picture
Little is known about this process in infants. By recording your child’s brain activity, we are able to focus in on the parts of the brain that process vision and touch and explore how infants process this kind of information.

In our study, we want to find out how young infants’ brains responds to light vibrations (that feel like slight tickles) on their hands which signal the location of a flash of light presented moments later (placed on the back of their hands via scratch mittens).”

So, no supersoldier serum or anything (dammit!) - but genuine actual brain science. I'd be really interested in a reverse of this experiment where they flash the light, then buzz the palm, because that might indicate whether we feel things more keenly when we're looking at them versus looking away, and explain whether averting your eyes from an injection you're having is actually an effective method of pain control. But that's a whole 'nother study …

So anyway, there Theo is, sitting in the dark wearing electric mittens and a brain science jelly helmet. I forgot to say there was also a video camera recording his responses, but that was in the room too.

The next bit must have been rather dull for Rhiannon – and eventually even Theo, whose entertainment threshold is pretty damn low, got a bit bored. It consisted of her playing peekaboo and singing various nursery rhymes nonstop for twenty minutes: I hope her stipend includes a Strepsil allowance. Theo started off enjoying it, all smiles and attention, then his amusement faded a bit and he started looking around more, then finally he got really wriggly and started trying to throw himself off my lap.

Gratuitous Marine picture
However by this time they had all the data they needed, and it seems that rather like the entry tests for the US marine corps, most of the candidates don't even complete the course (ie the babies start yelling before the time is up). At some point towards the end of the session one of the other researchers mentioned the number 200 which means I presume that they did the buzz/lights thing 200 times – in which case I'm really impressed Theo sat there and took it for so long. He'll be an asset to M15 when he grows up.

And that was it – the ladies took a few pics of Theo with his helmet on, which were posted onto their Facebook group to join what is basically the most adorable photo album on the internet – seriously, check it out. And finally, Theo's patience and fortitude was rewarded with an exclusive Goldsmiths Infant Lab t-shirt, which like the celebrated Blankety Blank chequebook and pen, and the equally coveted I cracked the Crystal Maze crystals, are not available to buy in the shops, but must be won by the sweat of one's brow.

So if you have a baby, toddler or child under 12 and you live in South East London, there are plenty of worse and less interesting ways to spend your afternoon than at the Goldsmiths Infant Lab. It's kind of fun, it's all in the name of science, and your kid gets a free tee – what's not to like?

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