Mystery of infant consciousness: Study sheds fresh light on it

The study could have important clinical, ethical and potentially legal implications.

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Infant consciousness remains mysterious, and there is no received view about when and in what form consciousness first emerges. New research from Trinity College Dublin and colleagues in Australia, Germany, and the USA has shed fresh light on the mystery of infant consciousness.

The study suggests that some form of conscious experience is present by birth and perhaps even in late pregnancy. According to scientists, this study could have important clinical, ethical, and potentially legal implications.

A “late-onset” theory is defended by certain theorists, who contend that consciousness requires cognitive abilities that are unlikely to exist before the kid turns one at the earliest. In contrast, scientists in this study argue that a baby’s brain is still developing by birth. Still, it is already capable of conscious experiences that can impact how they learn to comprehend themselves and their surroundings.

One of the paper’s two lead authors, Dr Tim Bayne, Professor of Philosophy at Monash University (Melbourne), said, “Nearly everyone who has held a newborn infant has wondered what, if anything, it is like to be a baby. But of course, we cannot remember our infancy, and consciousness researchers have disagreed on whether consciousness arises ‘early’ (at birth or shortly after) or ‘late’ ­– by one year of age, or even much later.”

The team drew on recent developments in consciousness science to offer a fresh viewpoint on when consciousness first appears. Adults can consistently distinguish between consciousness and absence using some brain imaging markers, which are increasingly used in science and medicine. It has never been done before to evaluate these signs in infants to determine their level of consciousness.

Co-author of the study, Lorina Naci, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology, who leads Trinity’s ‘Consciousness and Cognition Group, explained“Our findings suggest that newborns can integrate sensory and developing cognitive responses into coherent conscious experiences to understand the actions of others and plan their responses.”

“We know that seeing is much more immature in babies than hearing, for example. Furthermore, this work suggests that, at any point in time, infants are aware of fewer items than adults and can take longer to grasp what’s in front of them. Still, they can easily process more diverse information, such as sounds from other languages, than their older selves.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Tim Bayne, Joel Frolich, Rhodri Cusack, Julia Moser, Lorina Naci. Consciousness in the cradle: on the emergence of infant experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2023.08.018

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