We bid farewell to scientist and communicator extraordinaire Dr Yael Schuster and her wonderful books and toys. Keeping with that theme, our next curator is a Research Fellow from Birbeck Baby Lab, London. Caspar started life as a mathematician and ended up in baby research. Here’s his remarkable story, in his own words.
My first degree was in maths and I went into banking as that seemed like the easiest way to make a living. I started out as a trader but I got sacked for being too nice. I then spent 8 years writing derivatives trading software. It was fun for a few years but when I started to fall asleep at my desk all the time I realised I wasn’t in the right place. So I started a psychology degree at Birkbeck, London’s night school university. When I graduated in 2005, I quit banking to do a full time PhD in developmental psychology, also at Birkbeck. And I’ve been there pretty much ever since.
During my degree the most engaging lectures were about child development and babies in particular. This was perhaps not surprising as Birkbeck has one of the biggest babylabs in the world.
And if you are trying to understand humans it seems like a good idea to start at the beginning. Studying babies also keeps me aware of two other things. Humans are brilliant at learning things but we generally don’t know how we do it. WIth babies one can see the trial and error process of learning actually happening and is reminded that a curiosity about new things is what dirves it forward. In many ways babies are little scientists and so they’re wonderful research collaborators.
I specialise in the study of learning in the first few years of life and have researched such topics as how we learn our first words, our first abstract concepts and how our sense of time develops. I run behavioural studies with infants and sometimes with adults. I also builds neural network models to explain *how* we learn these new skills.
My most popular research has involved investigating the role of laughter in early life. I run a website for this, the Baby Laughter Project (http://babylaughter.net). which conducted a global survey of thousands of parents asking what makes their babies laugh. Parents also send in their videos which are used to illustrate aspects of why laughter is much more important than it first appears.
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?
Well, I research what makes babies laugh and who doesn’t like laughing babies? But it is a common misconception about our research that we are studying babies to understand babies. We are studying babies to understand people more generally. By studying how skills are acquired you can learn a lot more than by looking at expert performance. Studying how babies learn language is far more illuminating than studying the “rules” of grammar.
To give an example from my research. I’ve spent the last few years trying to understand our sense of time. It is such a ubiquituous yet vague thing that our own intuitions about it are fairly useless (And typically philosophers have been rubbish at explaining it). But by seeing what aspects of timing babies are good and bad can tell us a lot about adult abilities. We’ve found that over the space of a few seconds babies aren’t much worse than adults suggesting that adult (and animal) timing mechanisms are actually quite simple.
My main hobbies are tai chi, meditation and running which sounds terribly virtuous but do manage a fair amount of drinking and dancing too. I go to quite a lot of festivals including the Nowhere festival in Spain, a European version of Burning Man.
I occasionally write novels.
I’m still learning the art of not being a graduate student and having a work/life balance. But my favourite kind of day off is the day after a big conference, wandering around an unfamiliar city.
Please welcome Caspar Addyman (@BrainStraining) to Real Scientists!