April 20, 2009 by Cara Flanagan.
Natalie Portman is best known for her acting, in films such as Star Wars and Cold Mountain. However, she isn’t just a pretty face and talented actress but also a keen student of Psychology, having studied for a degree in the subject at the prestigious Harvard University. While there she was the co-author of a journal article (using her real name of Natalie Hershlag). The research study concerned object permanence in young infants, a concept introduced by Jean Piaget to explain the ability to understand that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight, such as a toy being hidden behind a pillow. Piaget regarded object permanence as one of the early milestones in developed, achieved around the age of 8 months. (Though, other researchers, such as Renée Baillargeon, have devised numerous ingenious experiments to demonstrate that infants may have this ability at a much younger age). The research by Natalie and her co-workers looked at the role of brain maturation in object permanence. Specifically they studied frontal lobe activity in infants using a new technique – near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Other brain scanning techniques don’t work with infants because they wriggle about too much, whereas NIRS involves wearing a kind of high-tech hat. In NIRS an infrared light to detect how much oxygenated blood is in target regions of the brain, which indicates what regions are most active. Using this technique the study showed that children who had not developed object permanence showed no activity in the frontal lobes, whereas in children who did look for a hidden object (i.e. had object permanence) the frontal lobes were active. This supports the view that frontal lobe activity underlies object permanence. The study was also important in developing a technique that could be used in studying the brain development of infants.