In a review of published literature from the past 30 years, Kristy vanMarle, together with Susan Hespos of Northwestern University, found evidence for an intuitive understanding of physics in infants as young as two months – the earliest age at which testing can occur.
"In the MU Developmental Cognition Lab, we study infant knowledge of the world by measuring a child’s gaze when presented with different scenarios," says vanMarle.
"We believe that infants are born with expectations about the objects around them, even though that knowledge is a skill that’s never been taught. As the child develops, this knowledge is refined and eventually leads to the abilities we use as adults.”
At just two months, infants show they understand that unsupported objects will fall and that hidden objects don't cease to exist.
By five months, they don't expect non-cohesive substances like sand or water to be solid, and by 10 months consistently choose larger amounts when presented with two different amounts of food.
"We believe that infants are born with the ability to form expectations and they use these expectations basically to predict the future,” says vanMarle.
"Intuitive physics include skills that adults use all the time. For example, when a glass of milk falls off the table, a person might try to catch the cup, but they are not likely to try to catch the milk that spills out."
The majority of an adult’s everyday interactions with the world are automatic, , she says - and it appears that babies have the same ability to form expectations, predicting the behavior of objects and substances with which they interact.
VanMarle warns parents away from getting too excited about their budding Einsteins.
"Despite the intuitive physics knowledge, a parent probably cannot do much to ‘get their child ahead’ at the infant stage, including exposing him or her to videos marketed to improve math or language skills," she says.
"Natural interaction with the parent and objects in the world gives the child all the input that evolution has prepared the child to seek, accept and use to develop intuitive physics."