Every mother wonders what is going on behind the beautiful eyes of her baby. What could the little bundle be thinking? A baby can't tell you, of course, and even if he or she could, there is no guarantee that it would make any sense to you. Infants are born with double the number of neurons that you have and significant chunks of their brain are still developing, not to mention everything that you would refer to would be completely alien to them. All this makes even thinking about the baby brain a mind-blowingly complicated task.
Despite that, biologists and pediatricians have recently managed to learn a lot about the newborn's mind. They have set up tests to divine what babies expect to happen by measuring how long an infant looks at something.
They have hooked infants up MRI machines to see what part of their brains light up when they receive a new stimulus. These studies are sometimes a bit open to interpretation, but they always show new aspects of the neonate mind. With all these new studies, they have revealed 15 things that are definitely going on behind those beautiful eyes that you are staring into, even on the first day of their life.
15 Baby Is Noting Things To Copy
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and infants are born to flatter. Research biologists modeled behaviors such as sticking out their tongue with children, and even infants who had been out of the womb less than an hour happily stuck their tongues right back at them (being a research biologist must be fun). Babies continue to copy the people around them- well, basically until they grow old and pass away since it's one of the most basic ways we learn new behaviors. In fact, it's something that we humans take further than any other species: a 2005 comparison of baby chimpanzees and baby humans found that chimps copy only what is useful, whereas we imitate everything - which is much more fun anyway and is probably related to why we now cover the globe.
14 They Are Zeroing In On A Face
From birth on, people prefer to look at human faces. Researchers have been able to determine by recording what captures an infant's attention, and the number one thing they have recorded is how they perk up and start paying close attention when there is a face in their line of sight. Particularly, they will gaze long and hard at their mom's face. Figuring out who Mom is and watching what she is doing is pretty much their sole goal in life, so they will start immediately.
In fact, our preference for faces is so strong that we will literally impose faces on random patterns. You know how oil slicks and bark on trees can look like a face? That is your brain hunting for a familiar pattern. It is ridiculous, but one of the odd side effects of the infant tendency to zero in on Mom's face.
13 They Are Collating Data
Babies can immediately put together what they see and what they feel through their sense of touch to decide what a thing is. What do I mean? I mean that they can guess the shape of something from the way it feels in their mouth, which allows them to visually pick out things they have touched before. Researchers tested this by offering two groups of babies pacifiers, with one group getting a pacifier with bumps on it and the other getting pacifiers with smooth ends. The babies did not get to see which they got before it was stuck in their mouths, but they managed to remember its shape and picked the pacifiers they had gotten the last time when they were given the choice. This might not sound like a big deal, but this is how they recognize what a bottle or breast is from that time that they ate while half asleep. Their ability to do it right away is pretty amazing.
12 They Are Picking Up On How Things Normally Behave
For a long time, looking-time studies were the name of the game when it came to researching what infants understood about the world, and they are still a big part of what researchers do. They show two things to an infant and measure how long the kid looks at each thing, assuming that he or she will look at something longer if it's unusual to them. One of these studies involves videos of cars being stopped by solid walls vs cars that go through solid walls. The babies always stare longer at the car going through the wall, because they were thinking what you are thinking: "Wait, what? That's not supposed to happen."
They know that cars should stop at walls because they have been watching solid objects from birth and quietly noting that such things shouldn't behave the way they do in the 2nd video. You can call this learning Newtonian physics if you want to, but don't include conservation of mass. You'll be able to convince a kid that there is more of something just by stretching it out thinner for another 4 years.
11 Their Thoughts Ramble
Not only is a baby born with double the neurons that an adult has, but there are more connections between the different parts of the brain. There are also fewer neurotransmitters that stop neurons from firing. All this means that if you could listen in to what a baby is thinking, you would get a rambling, incoherent word salad. It sounds a bit like a dog on acid. The way their brains are constructed lets them soak in huge amounts of information, but they haven't organized any of it yet, and their thoughts are fleeting as they have to pick up yet more information before the last bit has settled in. The later 'pruning' of all those neurons will make their thinking way more efficient, though at the cost of making learning harder.
10 It's All Background Noise To Them
Being able to focus on one thing at a time is one of the hallmarks of adult thinking, and it is something that infants have a very hard time doing. Everything they perceive and experience is of equal weight, the scratching of the pen on a piece of paper as relevant as the voice of their dad. And they spread their perception wide: people have compared it to how lanterns spread their light and how it gives diffuse illumination to a big area. This makes them both incredibly easy to distract and easily overwhelmed. After all, since they have no idea what is important, they had better pay attention to it all.
The good news for you is that it is easy to get them to stop pulling your hair. Just shake a can of pennies at them and they are off on a new train of thought and letting go of your hair.
9 They Feel Pain Exactly The Way Adults Do
This may sound strange, but there was a time that when surgeons operated on infants, they didn't use anesthesia. I know, ouch. The assumption was, based on the fact that babies can sleep through anything, they often act like they don't register when they are poked, and they cry at random intervals when they obviously aren't suffering, that infants didn't feel pain in the same way older children did. Well, someone got the bright idea of actually testing that hypothesis. They tucked infants in an MRI, where they generally fell asleep, and then they poked the bottom of their feet with a retractable stick that felt like getting poked with a pencil. They did the same to adults they had hooked up to MRIs. And, yup, both adults, and infants had their brains light up from the poke. Adults had 20 areas of their brains light up in the MRIs and the infants had 18 of those same areas lit up. What's more, a lighter poke registered at the same intensity as a harder one for infants, so their pain threshold is actually pretty low.
8 They Are In The Here And Now
It can be really intense to be an infant. Their prefrontal cortexes aren't developed enough to sort out what's important from what's not, they have additional neurons and connections buzzing constantly, and the brain bits that hold long-term memories aren't up and running yet- anticipating the future or reflecting on the past does not happen. The present is everything, and it is all-consuming in its immensity. That face? It is the only face ever, and it is the greatest face. It needs to be scrutinized in detail forever- until a balloon comes into view because it is the greatest balloon and needs to be scrutinized in detail. It's like we are born doing Zen meditation and lose the habit later. Or that we are all born high on THC. Choose any analogy you prefer. The point is: infants have little understanding of time and live in the moment.
7 They Are Relating What They Heard In-Utero To What They Hear Now
The kid can hear you while in the womb. Well, he or she can hear you muffled and through the sloshing of your innards, so not very clear, but enough to determine that there are usually two voices that seem to be around a lot. Once out in the world, those voices will be much clearer, and the kid will be zeroing in on their source. He or she will also be sorting out patterns in the voices so they can recognize stories they heard before. There have been a number of studies involving moms reading a particular story out loud every day while pregnant and then reading it to the baby once born, and the kids tend to prefer the story they heard before.
In one study, they had moms read 'The Cat In The Hat' during pregnancy. The infants preferred hearing good ol' Dr. Seuss to other sounds immediately. So watch what you read while you are waiting for the baby to come.
6 They Are Learning To Assume Intent Based On Probability
Let's say that there is a box full of blue balls that has one or two yellow balls. If I reach in several times and I keep pulling out the yellow ball, you would probably assume that either the box is rigged or that I was deliberately picking the yellow balls. Researchers have done this experiment on infants, and the babies all seem to assume the later. They understood that if it was a just random chance, then I should be getting mostly blue balls, so I must be doing something to pick the yellow ones and doing it for a reason.
Many people believe that this means that we are all born with an instinctive understanding of probability, but, since most people have a hard time figuring out their odds of winning the lottery, I'd say it's more like we realize quickly when there have overwhelming odds against something.
5 They Are Studying People's Actions To Figure Out Their Preferences
We take for granted that if someone keeps reaching for the same thing over and over, they must like it. But where did we learn this? It must have been at birth because several tests on infants using the looking-time set up prove that we make the assumption almost immediately. Every time, an experimenter would establish that when presented with 2 things, she would reach for one of them, and then she would reach for the one opposite thing. Every time she switched up the routine, the infant was surprised and watched longer. Kids understand the intention.
4 They Are Figuring Out Which Sounds Are Part Of Their Native Language
Infants are all people of the world- they can discern every variation on consonants and vowels that any language has ever produced, and they can imitate them well. However, some sounds are not part of their home language. They figure out which sounds to ignore as 'not language' (and later lose the ability to even hear those sounds) by noticing how frequently a consonant or vowel sound is used. The more-frequently used ones are clearly part of a language and should be copied for communication purposes. It's a mathematical formula that they will apply religiously until they have mastered telling you that they don't want to go to bed.
The ability to learn languages easily will stick with them until they are about 17. They might not be able to hear the new sounds, but their neurons are very plastic so it is easy to get a 4-year-old to speak 3 different languages fluently, whereas I know some adults who still can't master their home language.
3 They Switch Fro-Hey, What's That?!
With so much information to take in and all the brain-differences that we have covered, perseverance is just not the infant's strength. It takes about a second of attention for a baby to decide if something is new, and once he or she discovers that it isn't, the kid's attention wanders to find something that is new. This is part of their learning process, though it does make entertaining babies hard.
This one second of attention can vary a little from individual to individual, and mostly a baby with an active temperament will get bored more quickly than an infant that is easier going. The only real relief for you as far as this easily-bored situation goes is that you can provide something 'new' just by changing the angle or lighting on something.
2 They Know What You Smell Like
A baby has a pretty good nose, and they identify what you, their parent, smell like in under a week. In fact, one study on infants who were only 3-days old found that the babies recognized the smell of their mom's amniotic fluid and could discern it from anybody else's. They also recognize the smell of breast milk and are drawn to it by two weeks of age. That last one is kind of sweet, I guess, but I really hope that no one ever has a need to recognize my personal fluids - especially ones that are only in the womb.
Don't worry about making sure you smell good for a baby, though. Even when a mom hasn't showered for days, children under 2 months prefer the smell of their mom to all others. You just can't stink to your baby.
1 They Are Trying To Interpret The Fuzzy Blobs They Keep Seeing
Infants can distinguish colors, detect movement, and tell the difference between dark and light. That is the extent of their visual powers. Their vision is something like 20/400, and they can't focus their eyes for the first 3 months of their life. Consequently, they spend a lot of time thinking, "What the heck is that blur? Is that weird blur something I know? Is it Mom? Dad? The dog?" Everything is just a fuzzy blob. Their vision improves as they get older, but in the meantime, they are more likely to recognize things by smell or sound. You can keep watching your favorite action film in front of them for a while- they can't tell blood from ketchup if you keep the screen more than two feet away from them.
Sources: theguardian.com, nytimes.com, urbanchildinstitute.org, webmd.com