Previous research on perceptual and cognitive development has predominantly focused on infants' passive response to experience. For example, if infants are exposed to acoustic patterns in the background while they are engaged in another activity, what are they able to learn? However, recent work in this area has revealed that even very young infants are also capable of active perceptual and cognitive responses to experience. Specifically, recent neuroimaging work showed that infants' perceptual systems predict upcoming sensory events and that learning to predict new events rapidly modulates the responses of their perceptual systems. In addition, there is new evidence that young infants have access to endogenous attention and their prediction and attention are rapidly and robustly modified through learning about patterns in the environment. In this chapter, we present a synthesis of the existing research on the impact of infants' active responses to experience and argue that this active engagement importantly supports infants' perceptual-cognitive development. To this end, we first define what a mechanism of active engagement is and examine how learning, selective attention, and prediction can be considered active mechanisms. Then, we argue that these active mechanisms become engaged in response to higher-order environmental structures, such as temporal, spatial, and relational patterns, and review both behavioral and neural evidence of infants' active responses to these structures or patterns. Finally, we discuss how this active engagement in infancy may give rise to the emergence of specialized perceptual-cognitive systems and highlight directions for future research.
Recent findings have shown that full-term infants engage in top–down sensory prediction, and these predictions are impaired as a result of premature birth. Here, we use an associative learning model to uncover the neuroanatomical origins and computational nature of this top–down signal. Infants were exposed to a probabilistic audiovisual association. We find that both groups (full term, preterm) have a comparable stimulus-related response in sensory and frontal lobes and track prediction error in their frontal lobes. However, preterm infants differ from their full-term peers in weaker tracking of prediction error in sensory regions. We infer that top–down signals from the frontal lobe to the sensory regions carry information about prediction error. Using computational learning models and comparing neuroimaging results from full-term and preterm infants, we have uncovered the computational content of top–down signals in young infants when they are engaged in a probabilistic associative learning.