Naïve Physics


Naïve physics or folk physics is the untrained human perception of basic physical phenomena. In the field of artificial intelligence the study of naïve physics is a part of the effort to formalize the common knowledge of human beings. Many ideas of folk physics are simplifications, misunderstandings, or misperceptions of well understood phenomena, incapable of giving useful predictions of detailed experiments, or simply are contradicted by more thorough observations.

They may sometimes be true, be true in certain limited cases, be true as a good first approximation to a more complex effect, or predict the same effect but misunderstand the underlying mechanism. Naïve physics can also be defined an intuitive understanding all humans have about objects in the physical world. Cognitive psychologists are delving deeper into these phenomena with promising results. Psychological studies indicate that certain notions of the physical world are innate in all of us.

Some examples of naive physics include commonly-understood, intuitive, or everyday-observed rules of nature: What goes up must come down; A dropped object falls straight down; A solid object cannot pass through another solid object; A vacuum sucks things towards it; Centrifugal force throws rotating things outwards; An object is either at rest or moving, in an absolute sense; and Two events are either simultaneous or they are not. Many of these and similar ideas formed the basis for the first works in formulating and systematizing physics by Aristotle and the medieval scholastics in Western civilization.

In the modern science of physics, they were gradually contradicted by the work of Galileo, Newton, and others. The idea of absolute simultaneity (the idea that time exists independently of any perceiver) survived until 1905, when the special theory of relativity and its supporting experiments discredited it.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, more research on knowledge acquisition is possible. Researchers measure physiological responses like heart rate and eye movement to quantify reaction to a particular stimulus. Concrete physiological data is helpful when observing infant behavior, because infants cannot verbally express their reactions. Research in naïve physics relies on technology to measure eye gaze and reaction time in particular.

Through observation, researchers know that infants get bored looking at the same stimulus after a certain amount of time. That boredom is called habituation. When an infant is sufficiently habituated to a stimulus, he or she will typically look away, alerting the experimenter to his or her boredom. At this point, the experimenter will introduce another stimulus. The infant will then dishabituate by attending to the new stimulus. For both cases, the experimenter measures the time it takes for the infant to habituate to each stimulus.

Researchers infer that the longer the infant takes to habituate to a new stimulus, the more it violates his or her expectations of physical phenomena. When an adult observes an optical illusion that seems physically impossible, he or she will attend to it until it makes sense.

Until recently, psychologists believed that our understanding of physical laws emerges strictly from experience. But research shows that infants, who do not yet have such expansive knowledge of the world, have the same extended reaction to events that defy what is physically possible. Such studies conclude that all people are born with an innate ability to understand the physical world.

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