Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Stella's world: learning from babies

When my grandchild Stella was born back in December 2007 (don’t ever let anyone tell you that time isn’t fleeting when it comes to children growing up), I was once again mesmerized by the strange wonder of babies. You don’t have to be a parent to know that babies have remarkable powers. The most remarkable? They survive. That’s what they are designed to do and they survive because they learn with incredible speed. For a long time, the general view of the scientific establishment was that because babies only had small brains, there couldn’t be much going on in the thinking department. I’m not sure how much time the scientific establishment spent living with babies to reach that conclusion. Stella and my own children have always struck me as highly sophisticated thinking machines.

Now we learn that science has recently caught up with parents in the baby stakes. Turns out that the average baby’s brain is on fire when it comes to absorbing information. I've used the sponge as a metaphor for cities before and it’s not a bad one for babies either. While human beings as adults tend to filter the world and only take in what suits them, babies go for anything that’s out there. So when you see a baby looking about aimlessly, she is actually soaking in everything around her with all her senses on high alert.

Great artists often talk about wanting to draw and think like children. Picasso even claimed, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. The idea here is that a childlike state puts us in a more receptive mode. Out of this state comes creativity and innovation. At Saatchi & Saatchi we have used this principle in developing a form of consumer research called Xploring. Rather than go in with pre-set questionnaires and surveys, we hang out with people wherever they happen to be, observe whatever they are doing, and (just as babies do) soak up what’s going on. No preconceptions, no expectations. Only after that stage is over is it time for insights and analysis.

As one of the researchers on the baby learning program said, “We had a very misleading view of babies. The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn more about the world.” Now that sounds familiar. Next time you are developing a consumer research project, think like a baby.

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