It’s not uncommon to see an otherwise respectable adult making silly faces and absurd noises to make a baby smile or laugh. But JSC Professor of Behavioral Sciences Gina Mireault suspected that babies weren’t being given credit for being “clowns” themselves. This suspicion gave rise to a research project, overseen by Mireault and involving a number of undergraduate research assistants, that has been dubbed “The Laughing Babies Study.” The researchers observe how infants discover humor and amusement and how that relates to bonding, attachment and development.
Although there have been similar studies done on older children, the study is one of the few ever done on infants, Dr. Mireault explains. “The goal of the study is to figure out what babies understand about the world,” she says. “What do they understand about relationships?” The researchers are looking at how humor affects the quality of an infant’s relationship with his or her caregiver, and how it influences their emotional health.
In addition to learning more about human development, one specific aim of the project is to provide JSC psychology majors with direct, hands-on research experience. At any given time, the study involves 20 babies from the local area who have been evaluated from the age of 3 months through their first birthday. JSC students make multiple visits to each participating family, videotaping and observing parents’ interactions with their infants.
The JSC students involved in the project not only gain valuable research experience, they present their findings at national conferences — and twice they have accompanied Mireault to Washington, D.C., for the prestigious “Posters on the Hill” event sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research, at which they presented their findings to members of Congress and others.
The students’ work has generated interest among the local media and their peers on campus. “It has stirred up quite a bit of excitement and intrigue in students,” Mireault says, “to know that research like this is going on right under their very noses.” That excitement was piqued again in 2013, when the nationally broadcast PBS series “NOVA Science Now” featured the research in an episode titled “What Makes Us Human.”
Funding for the research has come from the Vermont Genetics Network and Vermont EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. Recently Mireault received another grant, this time from the National Institutes of Health, to continue her research when her current grant runs out — so we can expect the sounds of laughter to continue emanating from McClelland Hall for years to come.