Spring 2019 HC 209H: Science of Human Infancy

Spring Term 2018 - 2019

Professor: Dare Baldwin

4.00 credits

  • CRN 32509: Monday & Wednesday, 14:00 - 15:20 @ CHA 201

Human infancy is a remarkable period in each of our lives that, oddly, we’re unable to remember. The human infant is a fascinating combination of helplessness and powerful potential, of preprogrammed responses and resilient plasticity. For parents, the advent of a newborn can bring untold joy while wreaking havoc on daily routines and healthy sleep schedules. The pace of change during infancy – which we will define as the period from birth to 24 months – seems nearly explosive:  newborns with little voluntary control transform into walking, talking dynamos by age two. How can we account in a rigorously scientific manner for the rapidity of change during this crucial period in human development?  In what ways do prenatal experiences set the stage for subsequent developmental outcomes?  How do cultural attitudes and approaches toward infancy vary, and what is the significance of such differences for development? What kinds of parenting practices best promote infants’ well-being? What accounts for human infants outstripping the infants of other species in cognitive and linguistic development? What is unique about the human infants’ brain? How can science be leveraged to improve infant survival and thriving, while avoiding harm? These are among the questions we will consider in this course. 

A particular focus of the course will be scientific techniques that shed light into the mechanisms and processes underlying and promoting infant development across domains.  Every session will include a consideration of methodological challenges with which infancy research must contend. We will also examine a range of innovative new methodologies that in recent years have provided a novel window into the inner workings of the infant mind.  I hope you will come away from the course with a host of new information, an appreciation for what scientific techniques as yet do, and do not, reveal about fundamental issues concerning human nature and human potential, and an awareness of the many important topics of investigation about infancy that are as yet still in their infancy.

Topics Covered:

Week 1 Infancy: The best of times, the worst of times

Week 2 Prenatal programming, prenatal learning

Week 3 Birth and “the launch”

Week 4 Sensing the world

Week 5 Moving and shaking 

Week 6 Thought, learning, inference

Week 7 Deeply social 

Week 8 Concentric circles of belongingness

Week 9 Health, exceptions and challenges

Week 10 What persists?

Course format and products:  The course is designed to be participatory throughout. Readings are original articles key to the current science of human infancy. Once the fundamental concepts at issue are introduced (Week 1), students will select topics for individual research and study, bringing what they’ve learned to class in the form of discussion points and mini-lectures. Visitors will join the class over the course of the term to engage with students about the scientific challenges inherent in the investigation of human infancy. Students will generate three other products: 1) contribution of a supplement to one class meeting to be shared with the group (e.g., a relevant video, blog post, cartoon, story, excerpt, discussion activity, etc.), 2) discussion posts reacting to the course readings, due prior to each class meeting, and 3) a scholarly term project that evaluates the scientific and humanitarian value of an existing intervention designed to foster infant thriving.