Dubbed, the "Goldilocks effect" psychologists have discovered that babies learn by ignoring information that is too simple or too complex, focusing instead on information that has just the right amount of challenge.

For years, psychologists have tried to understand specific situations that most effectively capture the attention of babies. While previous research has found that some babies consistently prefer familiar items, like a favorite toy, others favor new objects, the latest findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE on Wednesday, show that instead of novelty or familiarity babies seek out events that are "just right" in the amount of surprise and complexity.

Researchers at the University of Rochester measured the attention patterns of 72 seven and eight-month-old infants by setting them in front of a screen that showed video animations of items like a pacifier or ball, being revealed from behind a set of colorful boxes, and used an eye-tracking device that followed the infants' gaze.

As long as the babies looked at the screen, their attention was gauged and the events quickly continued, but as soon as they looked away their attention was lost and the trial ended. The babies quickly learned that they were in control, and if they wanted to continue watching, they just needed to keep their eyes on the screen.

Researchers were able to calculate and predict how likely infants were to lose interest based on the complexity of each event depicted in the video by using a specialized statistical model. They defined complexity by how surprising each event was compared to previous events seen in the video.

Researchers found that babies consistently lost interest when the video became too predictable and when the sequence of events also became too surprising to the point that the pattern of situations seemed random and unpredictable because the probability of something happening was very low.

"You would think that the more complex something is, the more interesting it would be. That's not the case with babies," coauthor Richard Aslin said in a university news release.

"The study suggests that babies are not only attracted by what is happening, but they are able to predict what happens next based on what they have already observed," says Kidd. "They are not passive sponges. They are active information seekers looking for the best information they can find," said lead author Celeste Kidd.

Researchers noted that although the experiments were limited to infants, the findings can be applied to how the brain works in general and supported other theories of adult learning.

"If you are interested in human nature, then babies are the place to look, because their reactions are less convoluted by cultural filters and learned responses," researcher Steven Piantadosi said in a statement.

Past research has also found that adults also exhibit the "Goldilocks" attention pattern because they learn best from situations that contain just the right amount of complexity and predictability.

However researchers note that the latest findings don't necessary mean that parents should start worrying about providing material that is "just right" for their children.

"Infants are learning all the time, as long as they have reasonably stimulating environments. They focus in on what they can handle and filter out the rest," Aslin said.

"Parents don't need to buy fancy toys to help their children learn. They make the best use of their environment. They are going to look around for what fits their attention level." And even though the experiment employed an animated video, the scientists emphasize that human interactions are the most critical for development. "Kids learn best from social interaction," Kidd noted.

Researchers said that the latest insights into attention patterns could explain why children ask to hear the same story over and over.

Kidd explains that for an adult, the repetition can be mind-numbing, "but for a child, they are likely getting something new out of the story every time. Because adults know so much, we often take for granted how many new things an infant needs to learn."