To study the interplay between motor learning and emotional responses of young infants, we developed a contingent learning paradigm that included two related, difficult, operant tasks. We also coded facial expression to characterise emotional response to learning. In a sample of nine-month-old healthy Chinese infants, 44.7% achieved learning threshold during this challenging arm-conditioning test. Some evidence of learning was observed at the beginning of the second task. The lowest period of negative emotions coincided with the period of maximum movement responses after the initiation of the second task, and movement responses negatively correlated with the frequency of negative emotions. Positive emotions, while generally low throughout the task, increased during peak performance especially for learners. Peak frequency of movement responses was positively correlated with the frequency of positive emotions. Despite the weak evidence of learning this difficult task, our results from the learners would suggest that increasing positive emotions, and perhaps down-regulating negative emotional responses, may be important for improving performance and learning a complex operant task in infancy. Further studies are necessary to determine the role of emotions in learning difficult tasks in infancy.
Keywords: Motor learning; children; contingent learning; negative affect; positive affect.