The Goldilocks effect: human infants allocate attention to visual sequences that are neither too simple nor too complex

PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36399. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036399. Epub 2012 May 23.


Human infants, like immature members of any species, must be highly selective in sampling information from their environment to learn efficiently. Failure to be selective would waste precious computational resources on material that is already known (too simple) or unknowable (too complex). In two experiments with 7- and 8-month-olds, we measure infants' visual attention to sequences of events varying in complexity, as determined by an ideal learner model. Infants' probability of looking away was greatest on stimulus items whose complexity (negative log probability) according to the model was either very low or very high. These results suggest a principle of infant attention that may have broad applicability: infants implicitly seek to maintain intermediate rates of information absorption and avoid wasting cognitive resources on overly simple or overly complex events.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Regression Analysis
  • Visual Perception / physiology*