Do newborns experience consciousness?

Detecting consciousness in newborns


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Babies blink, cry, yawn within weeks of birth, and sometimes smile. But do these actions mean newborns consciously perceive the world, or are they unconscious reflexes?

Scientists from New York University have long studied consciousness in adults, those with mental disorders, and animals, but understanding newborn consciousness has been challenging. Recent research, including studies on babies’ brain activity and eye movements, suggests newborns may have conscious experiences, as detailed in Claudia Passos-Ferreira’s article in Neuron.

Passos-Ferreira explains that while the final answer remains elusive, growing evidence suggests consciousness begins early in infants. This contrasts with theories that suggest babies need more cognitive development and brain maturation to become conscious. Creative methods measuring newborns’ brain activity support this idea despite the challenges.

Infants don’t respond to verbal cues well and often sleep, making their minds tricky to study. Passos-Ferreira notes that neuroscientists find the infant brain and behavior “noisy,” making it hard to extract clear information compared to adults.

Passos Ferreira’s article explores new methods scientists use to determine if babies are conscious:

  • measuring brainwaves in response to unexpected sounds
  • imaging to study brain networks
  • tracking eye movements like blinks and pupil changes in response to stimuli

These studies suggest that consciousness-related cognitive processes may start functioning in babies earlier than previously believed. NYU News interviewed Passos-Ferreira to discuss the latest research on the emergence of consciousness during human development.

Studying infant consciousness began after focusing on self and morality development. The researcher noticed a gap in philosophical discussions about early consciousness emergence, prompting a shift in research focus.

Researchers investigate when and how our conscious mind develops, exploring stages where different cognitive abilities are acquired and how this affects conscious experiences. For instance, language acquisition changes reasoning, raising questions about infants’ awareness of the world and their bodies.

Besides the noisy nature of infant brain activity, studying consciousness in babies poses other challenges. Infants sleep frequently, and consciousness requires wakefulness for testing. Their sleep states differ from adults’, alternating between active and deep sleep, complicating observation of their behavior.

Researchers correlate wakefulness with physiological measures like heart rate changes. Babies cannot respond to verbal commands due to their inability to communicate through language, unlike trainable animals capable of such responses.

In adults, the brain has networks for external awareness (when we focus on our surroundings and tasks) and internal awareness (like daydreaming). Recent studies using advanced brain imaging show infants also have these networks. Even though their brains are immature, they show similar patterns.

For example, when infants hear repetitive sounds and then a change, their brains react with surprise, similar to adults. This suggests newborns can consciously perceive and respond to their environment, challenging previous ideas about infant brain development.

Research suggests that consciousness likely begins around 26 weeks of pregnancy when the brain’s thalamocortical system develops. Before this, fetuses may not have the structures needed for consciousness, and sedative chemicals in the womb could further suppress any potential awareness.

Studies indicate that near full-term fetuses may process stimuli consciously, challenging previous assumptions. Understanding infant consciousness could influence how we care for them, as many believe babies experience emotions.

Enhanced awareness may guide better interactions and care practices, acknowledging infants’ potential for feeling pain and other sensations akin to adults despite ongoing brain development.

Journal reference:

  1. Claudia Passos-Ferreira, Can we detect consciousness in newborn infants? Neuron. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2024.04.024.