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03-23-2024

When do babies start gaining their consciousness?

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have proposed a new way to determine when babies gain consciousness. This is an exciting prospect, and their method could help provide some long-sought answers.

Think back to when you were a tiny, squalling bundle of joy. Do you remember those first moments? Did you have a sense of being…well, you? Most of us don’t, but deep down, we all want to know when that spark of self-awareness ignited. When did we transform from biological beings into conscious ones?

The idea of pinpointing when a baby develops consciousness has fascinated philosophers and scientists for centuries. In the 1600s, philosopher René Descartes theorized that infants might think, but in simpler terms than adults. Even now, it’s a question that leaves many of us scratching our heads.

Can babies give clues on their consciousness

Spoiler alert: they can’t. At least, not verbally. This makes studying infant consciousness a real challenge. “We can’t just ask babies when they become conscious.” Sadly, no baby is going to break their silence with a thoughtful, “Hmm, I’d say around 6 months, actually,” explained Dr. Henry Taylor.

Since we can’t get answers directly from infants, researchers suggest looking for scientifically identifiable “markers” of consciousness.

Consciousness markers

Think of it like this: you’re trying to understand when your best friend started liking a new band. You can’t read their mind, but you can look for markers – things like when they started humming the band’s tunes, dressing in their merch, etc.

The same applies to consciousness. “For example, imagine that in adults, we know that a certain very specific behavior, or a specific pattern of brain activation always comes along with consciousness,” said Dr. Taylor.

“Then, if we can identify when this behaviour or brain activation arises in babies, we have good reason to think that this is when consciousness emerges in babies. Behaviours and brain activations like this are what we call ‘markers’ of consciousness.”

Babies markers of consciousness

A recent study proposed four specific markers of consciousness – some present even before birth. This indicates that consciousness emerges early, maybe even in the third trimester of pregnancy.

However, researchers Dr. Taylor and Professor Andrew Bremner suggest this is overly simplistic. They point to another set of markers that appear later in development:

Pointing

This isn’t just about chubby toddler fingers. It’s about bringing someone’s attention to something and checking if they’re also focused on it. This social awareness shows a developing sense of self and others.

Intentional control

Think of a baby deliberately pulling a blanket to get a toy that was out of reach. As Professor Bremner says, this planned action – “intentional means-end coordination of actions” – is a possible marker of consciousness.

Explicit memory

The ability to remember and copy actions later (like playing pretend weeks after seeing someone do it) reveals more complex awareness. It’s what researchers call “deferred imitation of actions.”

Complications with babies consciousness

“One of the complicated issues is that it does not look like all the markers point to the same age for the emergence of consciousness,” said Dr. Taylor.

Some suggest consciousness arises in those last months of pregnancy, while others hint at around the one-year mark. And let’s not forget those super-advanced markers that only crop up in 3-4 year olds.

A roadmap for consciousness research

Professor Bremner urges us to consider a wider range of markers to create “clusters.” He explained: “We propose that a broad approach to markers, including those that emerge in early and late stage, is needed.”

“We also recommend that a range of developmental models of the onset of consciousness should be considered. For instance, it may be that some markers emerge in one cluster in early development, with others in a later cluster. As well as this there may be a continuous and gradual emergence of certain markers stretching over gestation and throughout early life.”

“We think that by clustering this broad selection of markers, we may finally be able to answer the question which has given us pause for thought for thousands of years. But it’s important to bear in mind that the answer may not be a simple one!”

Research significance

Understanding the dawn of consciousness isn’t just a fun mental puzzle. It opens a huge discussion about the rights of babies and how we care for them. It could change everything from medical practices to our overall understanding of the human experience.

We’re one step closer to uncovering the mystery of how that little bundle of reflexes eventually turns into the unique, self-aware person they become.

The study is published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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