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Bill Friedman Adds Nature vs. Nurture to His Experimental Repertoire

By Linda Grashoff


"What then is time? I know what it is well enough provided no one asks me; but if I am asked and try to explain, I am baffled."--St. Augustine, Confessions

Bill Friedman is working with the methods of experimental psychology to understand questions that have puzzled humans for centuries.

APRIL 17, 2000--If adults watch videotape that reverses the direction of liquid being poured out of a beaker, they know instantaneously that the tape is "wrong": Liquid does not pour up. But how do they know? Are they genetically predisposed to know that liquid cannot pour up, or do they establish the knowledge from experience?

William Friedman, professor of psychology, has a long record of research on temporal knowledge in humans, and in the last 10 years has extended his program of research to the temporal abilities of infants.

"Adults," he says, "are highly attuned to forward versus backward presentations of events that can happen in only one temporal direction." Friedman's research into temporal knowledge suggests, he says, that "expectations about the temporal direction of several transformations, such as pouring a liquid . . . develop [at] between four and 17 months" of age. But is the development based in neuronal maturation or environmental experience? Friedman's latest project, which gets under way in New Zealand next school year, extends his research to the age-old question of nature versus nurture.

Friedman has postulated that "infants have substantial experience with varied effects of gravity by eight months of age." But he knows that theorists who emphasize innate knowledge might favor an alternative explanation: "that infants have a special, biologically based attraction to gravity-related events." The issue, he says, "cannot be resolved by descriptive data; experimental evidence is needed."

Fortunately, Friedman has received considerable support to gather the experimental evidence. His salary while he is in New Zealand will be paid partly by Oberlin College and partly by a $40,000 grant from the American Philosophical Society (APS). Barbara Fuchsman, director of federal grants in Oberlin's Office of Sponsored Programs, says that, as far as the office knows, Friedman is the first Oberlin faculty member to receive a grant from the APS.

Friedman's research and travel expenses are covered by a different grant--from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF grant also provides for student help, and Martha Kaiser, an Oberlin student from Scarsdale, New York, who will be a junior then, will work with Friedman in New Zealand, helping to test infants for his study while studying for a semester at the University of Otago.

Why are they going New Zealand? Because that's where Friedman's newest subjects and collaborator are. Harlene Hayne is a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand. An international expert on infant learning and memory, Hayne has developed, says Friedman, "effective ways of recruiting infants from Dunedin and surrounding areas, primarily by signing up mothers while they are in the hospital after delivery. Her large subject pool will make it possible to accomplish in a year research that would take several years to complete in Oberlin."

Friedman will stay the full year because that much time will be necessary, he says, to conduct a pilot study and to test the large number of infants required by the main study.

"Infant research is slow," he says, "and despite Dr. Hayne’s excellent access to infants, a single semester is simply not enough time to carry out this work."





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