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Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Jean Piaget argued that object permanence is one of an infant's most important accomplishments, as without this concept, objects would have no separate, permanent existence. In Piaget's Theory of cognitive development infants develop this understanding by the end of the "sensorimotor stage", which lasts from birth to about 2 years of age.[1] Piaget thought that an infant's perception and understanding of the world depended on their motor development, which was required for the infant to link visual, tactile and motor representations of objects. According to this view, it is through touching and handling objects that infants develop object permanence.[2]

Early research[edit | edit source]

Piaget conducted experiments which consisted of behavioral tests with infant subjects. He studied object permanence by watching an infant's reaction when a desirable object or toy, for example, was covered with a blanket or removed from sight. Some of the infant subjects would immediately exhibit signs of confusion or dismay. Piaget interpreted these behavioral signs as evidence of a belief that the object had somehow "vanished" or simply ceased to exist. If an infant searched for the object, it is assumed that they believed it continued to exist.[1]

Piaget concluded that some infants were too young to understand object permanence, which would tend to explain why they do not cry when their mothers were gone ("out of sight, out of mind").[3] A lack of object permanence can lead to A-not-B errors, where children reach for a thing at a place where it should not be. "A-not-B error" is the term used to describe an infant's inclination to search for a hidden object in a familiar location rather than search for the object in a different location.[1] Older infants are less likely to make the A-not-B error because they are able to understand the concept of object permanence more than younger infants. However, researchers have found that A-and-B errors do not always show up consistently.[4] They concluded that this type of error might be due to a failure in memory or the fact that infants usually tend to repeat a previous motor behavior.[1]

Later research[edit | edit source]

In more recent years, the original Piagetian object permanence account has been challenged by a series of infant studies suggesting that much younger infants do have a clear sense of object persisting when out of sight. One study that focused on object permanence[5] showed infants a toy car that moved down an inclined track, disappeared behind a screen, and then reemerged at the other end, still on the track. The researchers created a "possible event" where a toy mouse was placed behind the tracks but was hidden by the screen as the car rolled by. Then, researchers created an "impossible event." In this situation, the toy mouse was placed on the tracks but was secretly removed after the screen was lowered so that the car seemed to go through the mouse. Infants as young as 3 1/2 months of age looked longer at the impossible event than at the possible event. This indicated that they were surprised by the impossible event, which suggested that they remembered not only that the toy mouse still existed (object permanence) but also its location. This research suggests that infants understand more about objects earlier than Piaget proposed.[1]

One criticism of Piaget's theory was that culture and education exert stronger influences on a child's development than Piaget maintained. These factors depend on how much practice their culture provides in developmental processes, such as conversational skills.[1]

Neural basis[edit | edit source]

Experiments in non-human primates suggest that development of the frontal cortex is linked to the acquisition of object permanence.[6] Various evidence from human infants is consistent with this. For example formation of synapses in the frontal cortex peaks during human infancy[7] and recent experiments using near infrared spectroscopy to gather neuroimaging data from infants suggests that activity in the frontal cortex is associated with successful completion of object permanence tasks.[8]

Stages[edit | edit source]

There are six stages of Object Permanence [9] (see Sensorimotor period for more detail). These are:

1) 0-4months: Reflexes - the baby is learning how its body can move and works and aren't particularly aware of objects to know they have disappeared from sight.

2) Primary Circular Reactions - Babies notice objects and start following their movements. They continue to look where an object was for only a few moments. They 'discover' their eyes, arms, hands and feet in the course of acting on objects.

3) 4-8months: Secondary Circular Reactions - Babies will reach for an object that is partially hidden, indicating knowledge that the whole object is still there. If an object is completely hidden however the baby makes no attempt to retrieve it.

4) 8-12months: Co-ordination of Secondary Circular Reactions - Babies will search for a completely hidden object. They will however look to where they last saw the object. (A-not-B errors).

5) 12-18months: Tertiary Circular Reaction - Children can find object that has been hidden, retrieved and hidden again. Also, in this stage the baby will try new actions to get new results.

6) 18+months: Invention of New Means Through Mental Combination - Children fully understands object permanence. They will not fall for A-not-B errors. Also, baby is able to understand the concept of items that are hidden in containers. If a toy is hidden in a matchbox then the matchbox put under a pillow and then, without the child seeing, the toy is slipped out of the matchbox then the matchbox given to the child the child will look under the pillow upon discovery that it is not in the matchbox.

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References & Bibliography[edit | edit source]

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Additional material[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Santrock, John W. (2008), A topical approach to life-span development (4 ed.), New York City: McGraw-Hill, ISBN 9780072435993 
  2. Bremner, JG (1994). Infancy, 2, Blackwell.
  3. What is Object Permanence?
  4. Sophian, C (1985). Infants' understanding of visible displacements. Developmental psychology 21(6): 932-941.
  5. Baillargeon, R (1991). Object permanence in young infants: further evidence. Child Development 62(6): 1227-46.
  6. Diamond, A (1989). Comparison of human infants and rhesus monkeys on Piaget’s AB task: Evidence for dependence on dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Experimental Brain Research 74: 24–40.
  7. Neville, HJ (2000). "Specificity and Plasticity in Neurocognitive Development in Humans" Gazzaniga, MS (ed.) The New Cognitive Neurosciences, 1259–70.
  8. Baird, AA (2002). {{{title}}}. NeuroImage 16: 1120–1126.
  9. Piaget, J. (1977). Gruber, H.E.; Voneche, J.J.. eds. The essential Piaget. New York. ISBN 0710087780 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
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