While a newborn infant can open her eyes and look around, she does not see as we do. A crucial reason is that her perceptual systems are unable to process the barrage of new information that she is receiving. We now know that, over the first years of life, experience tunes infant perceptual systems to their environment. However, we do not yet know the underlying mechanisms of this crucial developmental process. The overarching goal of my research is to elucidate how an infant leverages her experience into changes in her perceptual abilities. My work focuses on how infants use top-down information (i.e., coming from outside the perceptual system in question) to influence the development of their perceptual abilities. This represents a divergence from current approaches that consider perceptual development as a predominantly isolated, bottom-up process. This new approach to perceptual development dovetails with recent advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that have elucidated that the adult brain is a highly dynamic system with largescale neural networks and long-range connections. These networks permit the flow of information in many directions, including top-down information feeding-back to perceptual systems. These discoveries have precipitated a shift from considering perception as being a reactive or passive system to considering perception as a predictive or active system that uses the current state of information to predict future input.
To investigate whether and how perceptual development is supported by top-down processes, I have been studying sensory prediction in young infants. Sensory prediction requires top-down connections into the perceptual system and, thus, it is an important window into the role of top-down information on infant perception. To this end, my work employs a combination of novel behavioral paradigms and neuroimaging methods such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to localize neural activity in perceptual systems. Using this approach, I have established that by 6 months, infants are capable of using nascent top-down connections to engage in sensory prediction. Building from this foundation, my ongoing research is determining the role of top-down processing in perceptual development. I have been systematically investigating the functional or behavioral consequences of sensory prediction for young infants and how these processes may relate to broader developmental trajectories in perceptual development through studying individual differences and at-risk groups. In addition, I am investigating the developmental origins of these abilities and how they contribute to the development of the large-scale functional networks found in the adult brain.